Agi-environmental schemes do work, they just need ‘fine-tuning’, say farmers and conservationists after the recent release of Defra’s wild-bird index prompted gloomy headlines. Now, a row in the bird world is on the cards, as, next month, the GWCT will begin a Defra-authorised, controlled, regional cull of predators such as magpies and crows.

Farmland-bird numbers were down by 52% on 1970 by the end of 2009 to the lowest level since records began-but the decline has slowed since financial incentives for wildlife-friendly farming were introduced.

‘Although these numbers are disappointing, the reasons behind the headlines are complex,’ explains the NFU’s Andrea Graham. ‘Bird populations vary incredibly between species and regions, and can be affected by factors such as harsh winters and an increase in predators. The previous statistics had shown a slight increase between 2008 and 2009, which just goes to illustrate the variability.’ Dr Graham points out that Defra’s figures pre-date the launch of the Campaign for the Farmed Environment.

‘Halting any long-term decline will take several years, but the tools are now in place. Mass take-up of agri-environment schemes really started in 2005, and their success is a clear sign that agri-culture has moved a long way; farmers and growers do take environmental responsibility very seriously.’

Some birds, such as goldfinches, are actually increasing in number; the ones that suffer most, such as grey partridges and turtle doves, are those that depend on a single type of seed and, as a British Trust for Ornithology spokesman puts it, ‘have painted themselves into an ecological corner’.

Agri-environmental schemes now number about 57,000, are valued at £398 million and cover 69% of the farming landscape. However, the RSPB, which has been pressurising Defra not to cut schemes, points out that the most popular options for farmers are also the least complicated (and less remunerative) ones, involving field boundaries rather than open-field habitats, and, therefore, don’t benefit species such as skylarks.

As a result, Defra has pledged an 80% rise in funding over the next four years for the more sophisticated higher-level schemes, and Natural England’s figures already show an improved take-up. The RSPB’s Mark Avery says: ‘The good news is that we know how to turn around these declines; everyone now needs to play their part and get on with the job. Defra only has to tweak the schemes a little.’

Research for Ibis, the scientific avian journal, highlighted complicated variants, such as the fact that one seed type doesn’t fit all: some sowing schemes attract Carduelis finches, which are of little conservation concern, but not tree sparrows. Seed sown for the latter could also have the negative result of attracting too many woodpigeons.

The article says there is a ‘hungry gap’, and that winter-stubble methods need examining. The GWCT has proved that ground-nesting and wader bird numbers significantly improve where there is determined predator control.

The RSPB may challenge the Defra cull, but the plan is backed by the Songbird Survival Trust, whose Nick Forde writes in The Times: ‘Laying the blame for songbird decline on habitat loss and intensive farming is misleading. Since the 1970s, our habitat has actually been improving. Defra’s commitment to reverse the decline in farmland birds by 2020 stands no chance of success until the predation issue is recognised.’

On the rise

Farmland birds
Woodpigeon
Jackdaw
Goldfinch
Reed bunting
Woodland birds
Blackcap
Great spotted woodpecker
Green woodpecker
Nuthatch
Sparrowhawk
Wren
Robin
Great tit
Long-tailed tit
Lesser whitethroat
Siskin
Seabirds/waterbirds
Guillemot
Avocet
Whooper swan
Pink-footed goose
Black-tailed godwit

Falling

Farmland
Grey partridge
Turtle dove
Starling
Tree sparrow
Corn bunting
Yellow wagtail
Woodland
Wood warbler
Nightingale
Willow tit
Tree pipit
Spotted flycatcher
Lesser redpoll
Lesser spotted woodpecker
Blackbird
Bullfinch
Dunnock
Song thrush
Tawny owl
Seabirds/waterbirds
Kittiwake
Dunlin
Mallard
Pintail
Bar-tailed godwit