Blogger: Steve Rowland, Public Affairs Manager

Maybe it’s a legacy of studying Geography at University, but I do like to look out of train windows and try to read the landscape that I am passing through. The train journey that I do most frequently takes me through a real cross section of lowland landscapes. From King’s Lynn I first travel south west across the Fens, through a mosaic of large fields, drainage ditches, shelter belts and scrubby corners. After Cambridge where I change trains, I head across Hertfordshire to Hitchin. This leg of the journey see’s far less variety in the landscape with bigger and neater fields.  From Hitchin my final train takes me south through Bedfordshire to Sandy and the view out of the window becomes more mixed again with arable fields, sewage works and gravel pits.

It is the first and last legs of this journey where I most often see a variety of birds from the train, why is that, what do these areas have that the middle section doesn’t?

Well perhaps it’s all down to variety of land use and the existence of rough edges and wet bits. In the case of the Fens you need to try and understand how the landscape came about through the drainage of the once expansive wetlands for agriculture. The drained peat soils are ideal for growing a wide range of crops on including spring sown vegetables. The capillary of drainage ditches edged by narrow borders of rough grass and occasional scrub creates some albeit limited opportunities for wildlife amongst less favourable habitat.

Many landowners in these areas are taking positive action for birds and other wildlife, often working with RSPB advisers who directly plan and help them apply for government grants that pay the farmers for measures to benefit wildlife. Some of the steps taken by Fenland farmers are truly impressive. One Michael Sly at Thorney, near the RSPBs Nene Washes nature reserve has recently entered a Higher Level scheme agreement which will fund the creation and management of 410 Skylark plots on his land. This is a proven way of encouraging Skylarks to breed and it is wonderful to think of the increased volume of bird song that there will be there in coming springs and the flocks of farmland birds feeding on winter seed rich habitats with the farm donating over 38ha to this management and lifeline for birds over the winter.

Another farmer shaping the landscape of his farm for wildlife is Robert Law who farms at Thrift Farm near Royston. Robert has enthusiastically carried out a number of actions over the years to encourage wildlife on his farm including unharvested crops to feed birds over the winter and managing chalk grassland for Chalk-hill Blue butterflies and the Pasque Flower. So good is his farm for wildlife that it is one of the four finalists in the RSPB / Daily Telegraph Nature of Farming Awards.

It is good to know that all across the country that famers like Robert are stepping up for nature and working with the RSPB and others to improve their land for wildlife. You can join them in stepping up by volunteering to take part in the RSPB’s Volunteer Farmer Alliance as a bird surveyor or you could vote in this year’s Nature of Framing Awards.

Photo Credit: The black soils of The Fens (Adam Murray, RSPB)