Like many farmers, Sam Bonnar is a man of few words.
But ask him about the birds that make their homes on his land in the beautiful Antrim Hills and he lights up, the passion he has for wildlife clear to see.
Sam (60) farms in the Glenwherry area, grazing cattle and sheep. These uplands are one of the last remaining strongholds for threatened breeding wader species like curlews and lapwings on the island of Ireland.
“I left school at 15 and have been farming here for 45 years,” he said. “Even before the RSPB started working in this area I was very interested in birds. As a child I would wander around with my father and we would have seen and heard curlews regularly. We often heard the call of corncrakes – a sound that’s gone now.”
Sam says changes in agricultural practices in recent years have had a real impact on wildlife.
He explains: “Silage has done away with a lot of the birds. Meadows used to be cut by hand in August when most chicks would be hatched and away. But now cutting is from May, plonk in the middle of breeding season.
“When I was young most people had really small farms, maybe with 20 or 30 sheep and half a dozen cows. It’s all about numbers now as people try to make ends meet.”
With more pressure than ever to produce food for our growing population, Sam understands why some farmers feel intensification is necessary. But, he says, the rewards are there for those who make space for wildlife.
“I do things on my farm to help wildlife because it’s nice to see nature at its fullest,” he said. “The year before last I was sitting looking out my living room window and there was a lapwing nest about 20 yards away in the garden. My grandchildren watched her and the chicks for a long time – it was wonderful.”
Sam is modest about the measures he takes to help birds thrive on his land. This includes sowing wild bird cover (seed mixtures that provide vital food for birds throughout the winter) and undertaking rush management. Ground-nesting birds like curlews need areas of tussocky grass to lay their eggs as well as open, wet areas to feed.
RSPB Northern Ireland has been helping Sam manage rush on his land thanks to a special piece of machinery. The Soucy tractor has innovative low-pressure tracks, which means it can access very soft areas without getting stuck.
“It’s some piece of kit,” Sam says, “Although there’s nothing like a bit of rush cutting by hand for clearing your head!”
Already this year, the hard work is paying off – Sam has spotted three pairs of curlews so far.
“There’s nothing as nice as standing out in the yard at about half ten or eleven at night and hearing the sound of the birds”, he says.
“Every farmer’s circumstances are different. But my message would be that there are small things you can do that can really make a difference for nature.”
If you're interested in finding out more, read our blog on everything you need to know about curlew. To hear the evocative call of the curlew for yourself, you can listen to a recording here.
Find out more about how the RSPB is working with farmers to secure a home for nature across the UK, as well as projects that are underway to help species like the curlew, here.
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