Another fresh from the press blog this time with Alice Groom, RSPB Senior Policy Officer working to ensure policies reward nature friendly farming.

The latest Birds of Conservation Concern Report has been published today showing that many of our wild birds are under threat. Amongst those groups of birds under most threat are those which live on farmland. Farmland covers c70% of the UK, and how this land is managed to produce food has significant consequences for wildlife.

Birds of Conservation Concern or BOCC is a well-established, well-respected process for identifying conservation priorities for birds in the UK, Channel Islands and Isle of Man. It uses quantitative assessments against standardised criteria to allocate species into one of three lists, ‘Red’, ‘Amber’ or ‘Green’, depending on their level of conservation concern – with those species most threatened categorised as ‘Red’. Check our Science blog: New UK red list for birds for further details. 

Its bad news for farmland birds

14 farmland birds are rated as Red and 8 as Amber, meaning 85% of farmland birds are of a conservation concern. Just 4 farmland birds have been categorised as Green. Worryingly the status of farmland birds appears to be declining over time. Since the first BOCC assessment in 1996, 3 farmland birds have been categorised as Red including the yellow wagtail and yellow wagtail.  Due to concerted conservation effort some species such as the stone curlew is now classified as Amber.

Since at least the 1940s, agricultural policies have encouraged the intensification of farmland to boost yields but at the expense of the health of our natural environment. Since the 1970’s populations of farmland birds, butterflies and bees have plummeted, farming now contributes 10% of our greenhouse gas emissions and is a significant driver of poor air and water quality. This is bad for farming too, as healthy soils, a stable climate and healthy ecosystems underpin the sustainable production of food.

Many farmers are working hard to build nature friendly farming systems that produce nutritious food, whilst helping to rebuild soil health, reduce emissions and recover wildlife. These farmers are showing that nature friendly farming is good for business, helping to reduce fixed costs, stabilise yields and support profitability. However, the market does not fully recognise the benefits of nature, and public policies do not currently provide sufficient incentives to support the whole scale switch to nature friendly farming. But we have the opportunity now to put this right.

Brexit has provided the once in a generation opportunity to reform agricultural policies in all four UK countries. The Westminster Government and devolved authorities can and should ensure that these new policies truly reward farmers for taking action to support wildlife. They can do this by putting in place well-funded agri-environment schemes also known as environmental land management schemes. It is crucial that these schemes follow the latest science and support practical measures that are deliverable on farm.

We have the solutions…

We now know many of the actions that farmers can take to support farmland wildlife. For widespread farmland species such as linnet, yellowhammer, and skylark, there are some simple interventions that all farmers should be supported to do such as providing flower rich habitat in the spring and summer, seed rich habitat over winter and safe places to nest such as hedges and fallow plots.

Some species such as the turtle dove or cirl bunting need more targeted and specific management. The cirl bunting is a fantastic success story. Due to the work of farmers across south Devon and rewards for the right interventions through agri environment schemes, the population of the species has risen from 181 pairs in the 1980s, to over 1000 today. This is a great example of science, good advice, the right policies, and great farmers working together.

Governments across the four countries are looking at new policies, but the risks of getting these wrong can’t be overstated.

Rhetoric versus reality?

In England, there is a big risk that these are drifting from their original purpose of put nature at the heart of farming. In 2018, the Westminster Government committed to removing subsidies based on the area of land farmed and replacing these with incentives to reward farmers for to farm more sustainably, create space for nature on their land and reduce carbon emissions. But the latest signs are that these policies are at risk of being watered down to business as usual. But perpetuating the status quo would be bad for nature, climate and farming.

UK farmland birds are in peril, but we can reverse this trend. It is vital that all four countries of the UK introduce policies to reward farmers to take action to support and recover our precious farmland wildlife. We need politicians to back positive rhetoric on improving the state of our natural environment with real world action before its too late.