Guest blog by Seán Woods, RSPB NI’s east County Down Conservation Advisor working with over 70 farmers and landowners in and around Strangford Lough in County Down, Northern Ireland.

Image: (c) Claire Barnett, RSPB

The east County Down landscape is home to a large proportion of arable farmers with approximately 40% of farms being mixed or arable, compared to an average of 10% across Northern Ireland.

This is where RSPB NI deliver the Farming Together with Nature project to help reverse the decline of yellowhammers in Northern Ireland. Yellowhammers are currently red-listed in both the UK and Ireland, with a local population decline of more than 90% within the last 25 years.

We currently work with over 70 farmers and landowners to help deliver results for nature while also operating a productive, profitable farm. Project farmers apply several agri-environment options which helps threated birds and other wildlife thrive on their land. These include leaving stubble over winter, sowing wild bird cover which both have an abundant supply of seed throughout the winter months. Well-managed hedgerows, field margins and flower rich hay meadows ensure that there is plenty of food and nesting sites available in summer.

Thankfully, in addition to yellowhammers benefiting from this work by farmers, other seed eating species such as skylarks and reed buntings benefit from the advice as well as a suite of farmland wildlife including Irish hares and butterflies.

Wild bird cover overlooking Strangford Lough SPA/SAC. One of many options that can help seed eating birds during the winter hunger gap. Image: (c) Seán Woods, RSPB

As a science-based organisation, we need to show our advice delivers results for nature. Surveying began in this part of County Down during the Yellowhammer Recover Project which ran from 2006 to 2011. This project proved that farmers who implemented agri-environment measures, coupled with advice, increased yellowhammer numbers by 79%. Interestingly, control farms also showed an increase of 20% during this period which shows that targeted help for wildlife on a farm can have a spill over effect into the wider landscape.

Since then we have continued to survey project farms on a three-year rotation, with approximately 20-25 farms surveyed each year. These surveys are essential to help target advice within the project.

A team of trained volunteers help us survey these farms, which consist of four early morning surveys from mid-April to the end of June. This year we had an additional eight farms to survey bringing the total number of surveyed farms to 30.

Key results for the 22 farms which we re-visited this year:

  • Yellowhammer pairs increased by 54%
  • Linnet pairs increased by 24%
  • Reed bunting pairs increased by 57%
  • Tree sparrow pairs increased by 86%
  • Unfortunately skylark pairs kept in current trend and decreased by 43%

The increase in yellowhammers over such a short period is truly staggering. Factors that could have influenced this upturn include a very wet autumn in 2017 resulting in an increase in unharvested grain left to overwinter. In 2018, we also experienced an unseasonably hot summer which may have led to an increase in insects which they feed on in summer. The results are encouraging but we need this trend to continue to safeguard this farmland bird.

The yellowhammer, once a common sight across County Down. Image: (c) Jonny Andrews

The eight additional farms which have either never been surveyed or never surveyed during the Farming Together with Nature project had a total of 23 pairs of yellowhammers, giving us reassurance that we are targeting engagement with the right landowners in the right locations.

In Northern Ireland, we are currently in the first year of delivering a new agri-environment scheme -  the Environmental Farming Scheme. This scheme provides grants for farmers to help nature thrive on their land. Previously, there were several years without any new scheme in place and no grants available for farmers whose agreements had ended.

Thankfully, in the intervening years, several project farmers took it upon themselves to sow wild bird cover, leave unharvested cereal, overwinter stubble and leave arable margins without any payment. In addition to this, we also had 20 farmers supplementary feed around half a ton of cereal each on their land over the past two winters as a stop gap for the new scheme. Can you imagine the impact on yellowhammers if we didn’t have these amazing farmers willing to go above and beyond for nature, during the period when no agri-environment scheme was in place?

The Farming Together with Nature project just wouldn’t be possible without the dedication of the project’s amazing volunteers. Our team of enthusiastic, passionate volunteers work tirelessly over the summer survey season covering thousands of hectares with extremely early starts.

The “yellow yarnie” is in a much better place thanks to them and the growing number of wildlife-friendly farmers in east County Down.