It’s autumn and, whilst we may still have a few days of sunshine left, the palette of the countryside is changing.
Standing crops have been harvested, bales are wrapped and stacked, swallows and summer visitors will be heading south and other species will replace them, stopping off to plunder berries in woods and hedgerows as they migrate.
Pigeons in flocks are hoovering up the grain that the combines have left; rooks are gathering in numbers in the high trees. Many species, both game birds and song birds in gardens and farms are facing the prospect of winter and the associated challenges to survival.
The modern countryside is a harsh environment for wildlife, with scant opportunities for food and shelter except where farmers have specifically made provision for them. This may be because of an interest in game birds, or through a support scheme where public money compensates farmers for giving over some of their ground to wildlife habitats.
As we head towards Brexit we now have a good idea from the recently published Agriculture Bill that future measures to support farmers south of the border post 2021 will be built around care for the environment. Implicit in any future support must be payment for farming for food but the Westminster strategy is definitely towards delivering ‘environmentally responsible farming’.
GWCT has always advocated that if manage your land for the benefit of game species then other birds and wildlife will benefit too. So, when we count wild grey partridges, as we are doing at the moment, we are also noting other species taking advantage of measures put in place on farms to protect and provide for some of our most challenged birds and mammals.
To the lay person, seeing that a field has not been ploughed or planted right up to the hedge or the dyke might make them think that the farmer took an early lunch, or that they are taking the subsidy but short changing the system. In fact we want to see margins left, hedges cut but on a planned basis and never ‘short back and sides’ at once, unproductive strips and headlands allowed to stand, or better still planted with a mix to benefit birds and wildlife.
We are working hard on the science to establish what different bird species need for food, shelter, and nesting cover and, come spring, for rearing their chicks. We know that managing the farm for game will deliver outcomes for farmland birds and songbirds too.
This is the basis for the Interreg North Sea Region-supported PARTRIDGE project, which aims to show how grey partridge measures can boost wildlife at demonstration sites across northern Europe. We hope this will lead to improvements in support packages available to farmers to give wildlife a much-needed boost.
If we can provide for these species all year round we will come far closer to safeguarding their future. So, for example, the wild grey partridge requires suitable habitat, enough food and tolerable levels of predation for success and when farmers plant cover crops, provide supplementary feed and perform even basic predator control they can meet these needs.
Other factors might include hedge maintenance and tree planting, but good habitat management for wildlife means planting and managing vegetation with appropriate care to provide a sound environment.
Where these interventions are planned and delivered then they can have staggering results – for example one study of game crops in Scotland recorded up to 100 times as many songbirds per hectare in them compared to stubble, set aside or conventional crops, with another study showing 15 times more butterflies and 40 times more bumblebees.
Where an arable enterprise will want to improve their yield by killing weeds with chemical treatments or killing insects with insecticides, this takes away a valuable food source. But this can be offset by treating areas around fields, margins and headlands with fewer or selective chemicals allowing more wildflowers and arable weeds to flourish, and the associated pollinators and pest-predators, which can actually improve crop yields.
At this time of year farmland birds need food and shelter, so plants that stand through the winter and retain their seeds through spring are ideal.
In Scotland we have been trialling kale, triticale, mustard, wheat, oil seed rape and quinoa benefiting many species including linnet, bullfinch, reed bunting, house sparrow, tree sparrow and song thrush. Any future payment regime we hope will ensure that greater levels of this type of work can be implemented. Finally, remember when enjoying the outdoors, walking the dog or riding the horse that field edges and margins, whilst they might look neglected and scruffy through the winter, are in fact a sanctuary for bird life. Tempting as they might seem, walk or ride through the stubble and leave the margins as a safe haven for species that need them for survival.
Dr Dave Parish, head of Scottish Lowland research, GWCT.