Guest blog by Ruby Free, Campaigning Communications Officer, RSPB NI

The farmers making changes to give nature a home

RSPB NI is working in partnership with farmers across Northern Ireland to protect and restore biodiversity. Their farms showcase nature-based solutions in action and how small changes to farming practice can help #ReviveOurWorld.

It’s important we share the incredible work farmers are doing to restore and protect nature, because after all, these are the very people on the front line reviving our world!

RSPB NI works with over 400 farmers and landowners, providing advice and support to access the Environmental Farming Scheme. Actions such as good hedgerow management, growing rough grass margins, or winter seed crops are steps that many farmers can take to maximise the room they make for our most endangered species, whilst enhancing the natural resources that underpin our food systems.

 

One of the biggest success stories is our work with the County Down Farmland Bird Initiative, comprising of 20 farms and working alongside 80 farms in County Down. This is a group formed a few years ago within the Environmental Farming Scheme whereby farmers can access support and guidance from RSPB NI to help give nature a home on their land.

RSPB NI recently hosted a visit with the Guild of Agriculture Journalists on two farms taking part in the Environmental Farming scheme and the County Down Farmland Bird Initiative - Slievemoyle Cottages and River Farm. They opened up for us, providing the opportunity for the Guild to see a future farming vision in which wildlife takes centre stage. Much of the conversation was focused on nature-based solutions and their feasibility on the average working farm.

    

The passion of these farmers really shone through to the guild. One of the farmers stated, “when many people think of our landscapes, the line ‘Emerald Isle’ usually comes to mind, making it sound lush and positive, when really what we’re looking at are green deserts, miles upon miles of deforestation and species loss.”

Our objective is to halt and reverse the decline of farmland and wading birds, with a focus on red listed species, (50% or more decline in 25 years, or are a species of global conservation concern,) and amber listed species, (25%-49% decline in the last 25 years.)

River Farm, owned by the Kelly family in Downpatrick, is home to owls, hen harriers, buzzards, foxes and pine martens. The wildlife corridors and winter barley encourage smaller mammals to come in and forage, in turn providing a vital food source for in-decline predators such as barn owls, of which there are under 30 breeding pairs in the whole of Northern Ireland. 

Biodiversity on River Farm       

Slievemoyle Cottages, owned by the Lowe family in Downpatrick, has areas that have been likened to a giant bird table. Crops of quinoa, beans and barley species provide pollen and nectar for pollinators in spring and summer, and seeds for birds in Autumn and Winter. This is particularly important as we move into January and February, often known as the hungry gap, as hedgerows become depleted of berries and food becomes scarce. Biodiversity at Slievemoyle Cottages Farm

Both farms also focus on mixed species grassland and use grazing animals to roam, adding richness to the soil, spreading seeds, and naturally fertilising the ground.

       

This landscape scale conservation work is having amazing results.

On the Kelly family farm, the overall number of bird species has increased from 28 to 39 since 2017. Tree sparrow numbers have increased from three to give pairs and reed bunting numbers have been maintained at 1 pair. Given that yellowhammers are extinct as a breeding species in large parts of Northern Ireland, the Kelly’s have celebrated having 10 pairs on their land.

The Lowes Family Farm doesn’t yet have any comparative statistics as this was the first year it was surveyed, however, we can already see just how biodiverse it is from the amazing work the Lowe’s are doing. At this year’s count we recorded an amazing 47 bird species on this one farm, including five priority species such Kestrel, Lapwing, Linnet, Reed bunting and Yellowhammer.

By making few small changes and keeping nature as their focus, both farms have seen flora and fauna thrive. These comparative statistics really show how nature can bounce back if we give it a chance to.

The changes we make to protect nature can be so simple yet so effective.

Humans depend on nature to thrive; we are part of nature, not apart from it, and RSPB is hopeful and incredibly excited to support more farms diversifying to a sustainable, nature friendly model.

  

Here is a video of our work: https://bit.ly/OnFarmNBS

If you’re interested in the Environmental Farming Scheme click here

To arrange an RSPB NI site visit, contact - Mark.McCormick@rspb.org.uk

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