Guest post by Georgie Bray, Acting Hope Farm Manager

This last winter has been an interesting one at Hope Farm to see how farm management, the weather, and the interactions between these factors impact farmland birds. Last summer was a hard one for growing spring cereals with the dry weather, and we predicted that it would make for a harder winter on the birds that relied on cereal seed in winter bird seed mixes as their main food source. With that in mind, and looking at the distribution of birds across the farm, we can get a real understanding of why our farmland bird index has increased over twelve-fold, but also where the farm has fallen short against record years.

Smaller seed eating birds thrived off the dominating small seed-bearing plants in our seed mixes

It’s always positive to start off with where birds are thriving on the farm, and where we and other farmers across the country will be supporting birds with similar provisions throughout winter. In simple terms, where there was food, the birds flocked! The three and a half hectares of winter bird seed mixes had lots of small seed-bearing plants like quinoa, mustard, buckwheat, phacelia, and millet. As birds were used to using that area for feeding, we also put down supplementary seed of wheat, oilseed rape, red millet, and canary grass. Linnet, reed bunting and chaffinch probably did the best out on these parts of the farm, with record linnet counts seen since we bought Hope Farm nearly 20 years ago. It just goes to show the proof in the pudding here, that if the right food is put out for birds, they will thrive.

Linnet (adult female) feeding on grain at Hope Farm. Image: www.rspb-images.com

The usefulness of the winter bird food was probably improved by the large hedges nearby, as the small song birds tended to flit between the hedge and the food sources, using the thick thorned vegetation as a means of predator protection. Elsewhere on the farm, birds like goldfinch and the other non-farmland-bird songbird species were still concentrated around the hedgy and coppice areas of the farm.

Although areas specifically maintained for conservation purposes were diverse and full of bird life, cropped areas could still be a stronghold for birds. There is quite a large acreage of direct drilled oilseed rape across the farm and these areas were great for grey partridge, skylark, meadow pipit, and even some waders like snipe and woodcock. Here, the soil ecosystem underground was relatively undisturbed with a rotting root system from the previous harvest to accompany the new growing routes, as a result of the direct drilled crop. This kind of soil structure is perfect for many soil dwelling invertebrates that in turn provide a good food supply for insectivorous birds. The vegetation structure in these fields also provides a good cover for waders, skylark and meadow pipit. The leaves are a fantastic food resource for wood pigeon but they aren’t the birds that we try to feed on the farm!

So why wouldn’t you see so many birds on the farm this year?

Although the winter bird seed mixes had a strong small seed component, the cereal component of triticale and barley really struggled to grow in the summer drought after it was planted in May. This meant that large seed eating birds like yellowhammer and corn bunting would have found it harder to find food out on the farm where large cereal seeds were not put out via supplementary feeding. Yellowhammers were our most abundant large cereal eating bird, and their distribution underlined a lack of cereals in the winter bird seed mixes. Although they were seen around the farm hedgerows, they were really concentrated to our supplementary feed stations.

This has underlined a few things for us, about the concerns about these birds finding enough food over winter if cereals continue to have poor growing years in winter bird seed mixes. Next year, if we have another poor season, we’ll hold back more cereals after harvest to keep these birds going over winter.

Although birds will have had a harder time finding food, there has been one saving grace – how mild the weather has been. When the weather gets tough, the flocks get going, and when the flocks get going we count huge numbers. 2017/18 and 2011/12 winters were mega counts, but that partly resulted from a tough year where they flocked together in such large numbers. With birds more widely dispersed, counts could be slightly lower.

At a glance, we had a look at the maps from our trusty bird surveyors and this was where some key farmland species were found in a greater abundance: 

  • Grey partridge: found consistently in the winter bird seed mix, and where overwinter stubble has either been left or direct drilled with OSR or a cover crop
  • Yellowhammer: found throughout the farm but really concentrated to hedgerows, and more so nearby supplementary feed stations where wheat was left out for them
  • Corn bunting: a poor show with only one sighting at the beginning of the year but spotted next to a supplementary feeding station where we were putting wheat out
  • Starling: fewer birds in comparison to previous years with only the tens spotted rather than flocks of a few hundred. Main repeat sightings were around the paddocks where short grass could give them plenty or space to forage, with trees bordering these habitats. 
  • Jackdaw: Seen increasingly on the winter beans of which we had a large acreage this year  – no surprises there with plenty of bean food for them!
  • Linnet: A record year this year and found almost exclusively around the winter bird food and supplementary feeding stations on the farm where there was plenty of small seed food available

The three surveys that mean every metre of farm is walked to within 25m in a morning, allow the calculation of a Hope Farm winter bird index. This gives a measure of average change in the suite of 16 farmland bird species on the farm. The index now stands at 12.15 above the baseline, or equivalent to 1115% increase. This is slightly lower than the last three winters but still our 4th highest winter count since monitoring began.

The difference in abundance of each farmland bird species in December, January and February between 2000 and 2019:

 

2000 / 2001 winter count

2018 / 2019 winter count

12/12/2000

09/01/2001

13/02/2001

11/12/2018

14/01/2019

20/02/2019

kestrel

0

1

0

1

1

1

grey partridge

0

0

0

35

29

20

lapwing

0

0

0

0

0

0

stock dove

0

0

0

26

50

37

wood pigeon

17

216

114

757

405

301

skylark

5

15

35

171

106

101

jackdaw

0

0

0

22

42

50

rook

1

0

0

18

122

35

starling

0

7

11

83

12

9

tree sparrow

0

0

0

0

0

0

greenfinch

9

17

42

15

27

1

goldfinch

0

1

0

45

17

25

linnet

0

0

0

209

281

35

yellowhammer

0

1

2

156

123

44

reed bunting

3

1

3

49

49

61

corn bunting

0

0

0

2

0

0

The Hope Farm Winter Bird Index, calculating a proportional change in the 16 overwintering farmland bird species from the time that we purchased Hope Farm.

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