Case Study: Do we really need to feed the birds?

Nicholas Watts from Vine House Farm shares his experience of providing additional seed food for birds on his farm, and the benefits this has had for tree sparrows in particular.

I am often asked do we really need to feed the birds? As someone who sells bird food I am bound to say yes, but we are only selling bird food because people asked me to sell them bird food when they came to see all the birds that I was feeding on the farm.

Why was I feeding so many birds?

Because they were hungry. And they were hungry because when you look across farmland today there really isn’t much food out there.

In the 1970’s I was doing bird surveys for the Lincolnshire bird club and the British Trust for Ornithology but none of them were on Vine House Farm. In 1982 I decided to do a bird survey on our farm to record the birds breeding on the farm. I did the survey and have done it every year since but by 1992 I realised that there had been a big drop in numbers; skylarks had declined by 60% and corn buntings by 90% in just 10 years.

This worried me, so I wondered what could be done about it. I started feeding birds in my farmyards during the winter months and I was soon feeding a lot of birds, up to 800, nearly all of them were buntings and finches. All these birds created a spectacle and I wanted other people to see this spectacle so I organised an open day. At that open day 2 or 3 people asked me if I could sell them some bird food. I hesitated but did sell them some.

The next year I had the same spectacle so organised another open day. Again all the proceeds were donated to the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust and again people asked me to sell them some bird food, there I was selling bird food without even trying.

Image: Nicholas Watts

From the situation in my farmyards it would appear that birds need feeding during the winter months.

Birds were not having a party, they were simply on the farm to eat food. These open days continued for another 10 years, and even though the birds had a surplus of food all through the winter numbers were dropping off. They left our farm in the spring, not because I stopped feeding them, but because they needed to return to all the various habitats where they liked to breed or where they were bred.

However there are problems out there for breeding birds  in the countryside with crops often sprayed several times. Herbicides kill unwanted plants, and if we kill these plants there is nowhere for the insects to live, fungicides kill off foliar diseases which some insects live on and insecticides kill the insects that could be living on the crop. If this happens across most crops, there becomes a shortage of insects on farm land.

Birds can’t take water to their chicks, so it has to be included in their food as either insects or unripe seeds. Fewer insects means less available food which is not very good for the survival of chicks, so unless there are sufficient insects in the countryside they will decline.

About 10 years ago tree sparrows appeared at Vine House Farm, and so I started to feed them. I also erected nest boxes and numbers have built up. I feed them with red millet all through the year and we now have 175 nest boxes up. 150 of them were occupied and this year they reared about 1100 young tree sparrows.

Image: Nicholas Watts

Our tree sparrows at Vine House Farm are an example of a population increase when there is a surplus of food – seed through the winter and insects through the breeding season. If we want to see a lot of birds we have to breed a lot of birds, feeding them all through the year.

Read more about the conservation work on the farm at www.vinehousefarm.co.uk

Case Study: Using ELS to maximise wildlife benefits in the Fens

Author: Steve Pinder
Farm: Greeves Farm, Cambridgeshire

I am a County Council tenant farmer. I grow winter wheat, beet, rape, and potatoes. I used to grow plots of miscanthus as game cover, which were shot by a small shooting syndicate. No birds were released and the shoot relied on attracting ‘wild’ pheasants. My wife runs a riding school on the farm, so there are several acres of horse paddocks. My land is a mixture of ‘Grade 1’ sandy loam and tougher areas. I make the best use of areas that are difficult to farm by providing for wildlife, like awkward corners and areas of heavier land.

Aims:

I live in a really important area for farmland birds – the Fens is one of only a handful of places where grey partridges, corn buntings, yellow wagtails, tree sparrows, lapwings and turtle doves can be found together. There are also a wealth of beneficial insect and arable plants that form the base of the food chain.

I provide a variety of options giving year-round wildlife habitat - over-winter seed food and in-field nesting habitat for farmland birds, foraging and sheltering habitat for insects and opportunities for arable plants to thrive.

Management:

I believe sensitive hedge and ditch management – including buffering – are part of good farm management, and something we should all do as a matter of course. The new challenges for me were learning about nectar flower mixes and wild bird seed mixes.

Nectar flower mix

I used a grass-free mix – they’re a bit more expensive but on these fertile soils, grass comes to dominate very quickly. The vigorous cultivars used in the mix in it ensure it stands a good chance of out-competing any problem plants in the seed bank.

Once the soil was prepared by ploughing and rotaring, I broadcast the seed on using a slug pellet spreader. This only worked because I had wider strips – it spreads it quite a long way so if they had been any narrower I would have been wasting seed.

I then rolled the plots. Small flower seeds like these do better if they are near the surface, as long as they have good contact with warm soil. I went for an autumn establishment, to give the seed a chance to germinate and get away before winter set in.

The mix had phacelia in it which did very well and helped to supress weed growth. Some of the plots I only needed to cut once to control weeds in Year 1. I can see there is less phacelia this year, and the clovers, vetches and trefoils are starting to come into their own. It looked fantastic last year, but I’m looking forward to even better display of colours this year.

Other plots I have elsewhere on the farm needed more cutting. I think a lot depends on the weed burden in the location you choose. I had to cut one of the plots three times to control the charlock, but it’s fine now it’s established properly. I don’t have a way of removing the cuttings so I make sure they’re chopped up fine when I cut the mix to prevent a mulch forming.

Wild Bird Seed mix

I have four blocks containing wheat, kale, quinoa, red and white millet, buckwheat, and sunflowers. My agreement started in January 2012 – anyone trying to get things started in 2012 will remember the almost complete absence of sunshine!

I tried to establish my wild bird seed mixes by drilling in the spring with very limited success. It didn’t help that they were sited on old miscanthus plots. I had treated it with herbicide but it had failed to kill it completely. By the time the seed mix germinated, there was already substantial miscanthus regrowth which effectively swamped the mix.

I was philosophical about it – from a wildlife point of view they weren’t a complete fail because there were still the chance for arable plants to grow there and encourage insects. They would set a bit of seed and provide winter food for things like skylarks and linnets. I also broadcast a couple of kg of mustard onto each plot area in July – it’s fast-growing and I hoped it might set seed in time to provide at least some winter food.

I re-drilled the wild bird seed mixes in spring 2013 and this time they’ve been a success. It shows what a massive difference the weather can make, even if you’re following the instructions and doing everything right.

I’ve also become aware of the plight of the turtle dove – we’ve lost 93% of them! There is now a mix available which contains early-flowering varieties of things like vetches and clovers, as well as some fumitory, which should provide a food source for them when they arrive here in late spring after migrating from Africa. There was a turtle dove here this summer, so I’m going to establish an acre or so this autumn, near to where I saw it.

Now I have my two-year mixes established and thriving, I can start to turn them into staggered plots. The kale seems to be doing well, so next spring I’ll re-establish half of each plot with the same mix again, so there is always some in its first year, full of cereals and millet, and some in its second year, with plenty of seeding kale.

Achievements:

The failed attempts at establishing bird cover were frustrating but luckily this is not the most expensive mix.

Even though I rent my land, I am able to make my environmental management stack up by using my worst land. It’s important we farmers all do our bit to look after the countryside.

I was amazed how well the nectar flower mixes did, and how alive with insects they were this summer.

I think the real benefits from the wild bird seed mixes will become apparent this winter, now they’ve worked. Anything’s got to be better than miscanthus! I’ve definitely got more sparrows around. I’m seeing small birds in the covers already, and it’s only October. I also see more sparrowhawks and kestrels now, which I’m thrilled about because it must mean the rest of the food chain is doing OK too!

I’m a real lover of owls - we have barn and tawny owls on the farm - and they all fledged families this summer which I’m really pleased about.

Advice for other farmers

Don’t be afraid to put some nitrogen fertiliser on your bird cover. It’s a crop, after all. I used about 50kg an acre on mine.

Horsetail can be a real problem in this area and it’s started creeping in from one of my margins. I’ve discovered that it responds better to herbicide if you roll it first, to flatten it and cause some damage to it so the chemical can penetrate.

In hindsight I would have cropped my old miscanthus plots first, giving me more opportunities to kill it off properly. I wouldn’t advise trying to follow it straight away with a bird cover or a nectar mix, because if it comes back your mix will not do well.

Contact Information

nicola.williamson@rspb.org.uk

Case Study: A farmland bird package on limestone soils

Author: Jeff Platts
Farm: Hazelmere Farm, Creswell, Derbyshire

Aims:

To provide summer insect food and seed food over winter for seed-eating birds, particularly targeting grey partridges and tree sparrows, and to provide suitable nesting habitat for lapwings on the arable land.

Management:

Hazelmere farm (270 acres) has been in the family for over 75 years, and is leased from Chatsworth Estates. I took the decision to leave dairying five years ago, and now the business concentrates on arable, with a livery and rural skills school on site.

Wild bird seed mix plots

To provide winter food for the seed eating birds on his land, I have included several plots of wild bird seed mix which have done very well on the free-draining, limestone based soil. The mix includes phacelia, kale, quinoa, millet and triticale with a handful of sunflowers also thrown in. The wild bird seed mix is re-established every other year and the land is prepared and drilled as if it is a normal crop. I occasionally get an infestation of flea beetle on the kale so a pesticide is used. A small amount of fertiliser is added to maintain nitrogen levels. The plots where the wild bird seed mix have been established were chosen to complement the adjacent land use such as hedges and margins with recognised bird populations.

The wild bird seed mixes have worked so well, I’m looking at re-sowing only one of them this year with the possibility of adding perhaps an additional row of quinoa or millet alongside another of the plots. The kale is showing through in this second year along with a reasonable amount of fat-hen which will also provide a good seed source.

Fallow plots

I have also included rotational fallow plots - it has proved very successful in encouraging lapwings to breed on the farm and I estimate there are slightly more than 20 breeding pairs. I’ve also seen flocks of up to 80 lapwings using the plots in the late summer.

Across the farm there are 51ha left as over-wintered stubbles after a spring cereal and, on average, 10ha are then sprayed off at the end of March and left as fallow after running over them with a light disc to break up the surface.

In the autumn, as long as there is no major weed cover showing, a single run with the cultivator or a light set of discs creates a suitable till and the cereal is then drilled.

There have been some issues with sterile brome on the fallow plot. After discussion with Natural England, the plot was left fallow all year including over winter and then cleaned up with a stale seed bed with a supplementary treatment with Roundup before being sown with another spring cereal this year.

Flower-rich margins

I’m currently looking at adding some additional floristically enhanced margins for grey partridge around some fields to increase foraging and breeding habitat. This will also benefit a wide range of insects, and other birds on the farm which feed their chicks on insects.

Achievements

Collectively, the wild bird seed mixtures, floristically-enhanced margins and fallow plots will provide an ideal package for farmland birds, giving the key requirements of winter seed food, summer insect food and in-field nesting habitat for ground-nesting birds, respectively.

The birds on the farm were surveyed in 2009 as part of the RSPB’s Volunteer & Farmer Alliance scheme. The survey picked up nine red list species of high conservation concern, including grey partridges and lapwings, and thirteen bird species of medium conservation concern, including bullfinches and reed buntings.

Of these, the density of lapwings recorded on the farm during the summer and autumn are testament to the benefits of fallow plots to this species with the number of lapwings breeding on the farm having increased since the adoption of this measure. It also provides a winter food source for those lapwings which over-winter in the area.

A large flock of around thirty tree sparrows were seen feeding on one block of wild bird seed mix and two of the blocks were sheltering coveys of grey partridge last autumn.

The wild bird seed mix plots are also magnets for hundreds of invertebrates including bees and butterflies.

The floristically enhanced margins will plug the final gap in farmland bird requirements by ensuring that there are insect-rich foraging areas.