Today was an Open Day at the RSPB's arable farm near Cambridge - for founding members of, and donors to, the project. We bought Hope Farm almost 10 years ago and our aim was to increase wildlife there, particularly those farmland birds whose populations have declined so dramatically, whilst maintaining the farm as a normal, productive, food-producing enterprise. And we have succeeded.
Numbers of several of the common farmland birds (eg skylark, linnet, reed bunting and yellowhammer) have increased whilst three species which were initially absent are now regular breeders (lapwing, yellow wagtail and grey partridge). And our wheat yields are better than ever.
Yesterday and today we gave nearly 200 of our supporters a look around the farm and an inside view of what we had done and how we did it. Today's visitors were keen to hear about the birds but also about the farming - and enthusiasm was maintained even in the middle of a torrential downpour this morning! The weather didn't put off the birds either and we saw lots of singing skylarks, quite a few linnets and yellowhammers, displaying lapwings, grey partridges and even, yesterday, a passing red kite. This farm is not a nature reserve, it is a properly efficient arable farm producing lots of wheat, oil seed rape and beans, but its wildlife is noticeably richer than that of most farms in the neighbourhood and yet it has been relatively easy to increase bird numbers. It would be great if more farmers across the UK were doing what we have done.
Our success rests on imaginative use of set-aside and deployment of the options available to farmers in government schemes which also supply grants. Farmers also get public subsidies simply for being farmers and not breaking the laws that apply to farming. That might sound like a pretty good deal for them but I really don't mind my taxes being used to support farmers provided that we money-providing tax-payers get thanked occasionally by the leaders of the farming industry (which happens very rarely indeed!) and that all that money does lead to a countryside with more wildlife in it (which is not really happening yet).
Hope Farm shows what can be achieved - it shows that you can deliver a good business and more wildlife at the same time. And it shows that it's not that difficult. However, our success also highlights the lack of progress in the countryside as a whole where populations of farmland birds continue to decline. When will we hear farmers' leaders admitting that there is more that the industry can and should do?
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