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Farmland Birds: Treasures Worth Sharing

June 7, 2020 7:45 PM
By Andrew Heaver

Creative Commons license (CC-BY-SA 4.0) (Charles J Sharp)

I glimpsed a national treasure this morning. Fabulously dressed - like all males of his kind - in sensational shades of limoncello yellow, he was singing his little heart out. He was sitting in a hedge, but seemed quite happy to be there. The sight of him made my own heart sing, too.

Flamboyant and colourful he may have been, but he was that rare thing: a national treasure that most people have never heard of, let alone seen. So exotic were his looks, and so rarely are his kind seen these days, you'd be forgiven for assuming that he was an escapee from the bird house at London Zoo, rather than a traditional resident of our countryside. And yet he and his kind - the Yellowhammers, who go by the delightful Latin name Emberiza citronella - have lived amongst us since time immemorial. If the sight of them is shocking and unfamiliar it is because we have pushed them into the margins, and then squeezed those margins to the vanishing point.

Yellowhammers were once common farmland birds. They are now much depleted farmland birds: since the 1960s their numbers have more than halved, and these dapper singers now find themselves on the "red" list of the UK's official Birds of Conservation Concern (BOCC) register. Why? Like many farmland birds, Yellowhammers feed on seeds and insects; traditionally, they found many of them on and alongside hedgerows. They need places to find sex, and raise families, too - and again, they traditionally did those things around hedgerows: the tops of hedges provide wonderful open-air stages for singing; uncultivated ground vegetation alongside them provides ideal conditions for Yellowhammer nests. Since the second world war, however, thousands of miles of hedgerow have been ripped up. And, until reforms to E.U. farming policy encouraged a change of tack, the wildflower-rich habitats that once straddled those hedgerows, providing both bed and breakfast for the birds, were routinely ploughed and sprayed out of existence.

The outlook needn't be dark for these down-but-not-out little superstars, however. Census data from the British Trust for Ornithology suggests that their declines have slowed or even stopped in recent years - which might have something to do with hedge conservation initiatives, including those reformed E.U. subsidy rules. In recent years, subsidy-claiming farmers have been required not just to retain their hedges, but to avoid trimming them in bird-nesting season, and - crucially - to maintain 2-metre-wide "buffer strips" of uncultivated and unsprayed land alongside them.

Reassuringly, Yellowhammers can respond well to timely interventions: at Hope Farm in Cambridgeshire, the RSPB has shown that by adjusting a few practices (such as reducing the frequency of hedge-trimming, and ensuring that not all hedges are trimmed simultaneously) it is possible to run an arable farm commercially and to triple local Yellowhammer numbers. Populations of other farmland birds are doing well there, too.

The reality is, if we want these national treasures to have a future as bright as their feathers, and if we want to be able to see them ourselves, we can. We just need to ensure that UK rural policies guarantee the conservation of farmland bird habitats - and public access. In principle, the government's much-vaunted shift towards paying farmers for "public goods" (including conservation and access) could accommodate that aim - although the devil is in the detail. A recent report, prepared for the RSPB, Wildlife Trusts and WWF, found that current rules regarding hedgerows and their uncultivated "buffer strips" may be lost in translation from the E.U.'s "cross-compliance" system to the more voluntary approach Westminster seems keen on. As the nation's post-Brexit farming systems emerge, we'll need to watch them very carefully - and to be ready to demand better, when necessary.

I was able to see a national treasure on my walk this morning because farmers have (thus far) maintained their hedgerows, their flower-rich field margins and their public rights-of-way. If we insist on sustaining and strengthening those efforts (and improving the equitability of countryside access, while we're at it), everyone else can have the chance to see these outrageously yellow little delights, too. Trust me: it is a chance worth having.

Dr Andrew Heaver is a LibDem activist, environmentalist and Science teacher in Oxford. He is a member of the Green Liberal Democrats.

Learn more:

You can read about the RSPB's Hope Farm project here:

https://www.rspb.org.uk/our-work/conservation/conservation-and-sustainability/farming/hope-farm/bird-numbers/

The IEEP's January 2020 Report to RSPB/Wildlife Trusts/WWF, regarding post-Brexit agriculture reforms, can be read here: https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/sites/default/files/2020-01/Post%20EU%20exit%20Regulatory%20Framework%20-%20Final%20-%20Jan%202020.pdf

Bird census data, cited in this article, can be seen here: https://www.bto.org/our-science/projects/birdatlas/focus-yellowhammer

IMAGE CREDIT: Charles J Sharp, used under Creative Commons license (CC-BY-SA 4.0)