Targeted arable management by farmers in the South West has helped a small farmland bird come back from the cusp of vanishing from Britain. Melanie Jenkins finds out more.
Farmers are often blamed for the decline of farmland birds, but what is often overlooked is the lengths to which they go to conserve, protect and enhance wildlife on their farms.
By altering cropping, margins and hedgerows, Chris Sutton-Scott-Tucker, at Great Coombe Farm, Dartmouth, Devon, has helped with the recovery of the cirl bunting, a small farmland bird which was on the edge of disappearing in the early 1990s.
Though once widespread throughout southern England and Wales, cirl bunting numbers declined in the 20th century to just 118 pairs in 1989. Through agri-environment schemes and collaboration between Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and farmers in the South West, the bird numbers increased to 1,078 pairs in 2016.
Mr Sutton-Scott-Tucker applied for the Countryside Stewardship (CS) scheme in 1995 and rolled out the options on his farm from October 1996. At the time the farm supported around 10 pairs of cirl buntings, which accounted for 2.5 per cent of the UK population.
Originally the arable rotation consisted of winter wheat, winter barley and oilseed rape, managed in blocks due to the rolling shape of the hills where the farm is situated. One of the CS targets was the introduction of 7.19 hectares (18 acres) of spring barley, to increase biodiversity.
Once harvested, the spring barley is left as over-winter stubble to create a food supply for the cirl buntings. In addition to this, 25,600 metres (83,990ft) of margins were established around the arable fields, including a cultivated margin supporting corn marigold and narrow fruited corn salad.
Mr Sutton-Scott-Tucker committed to 91ha (227.5 acres) of grassland management, and the agreement also required some substantial capital works in the form of restoring and planting 6,000m (19,685ft) of hedgerows.
“This included planting hedges and then laying more and creating a pond for dragonfly habitat,” says Mr Sutton-Scott-Tucker.
One hedge was planted between two arable fields and the lower field returned to grass due to erosion. Where hedge laying was not required, he fenced all the land between the arable and grassland.
“The hedges were the key to the cirl buntings, allowing them to hop between the arable and grass, with a hedge in between.” As a sedentary bird, cirl buntings will not travel further than 2km from their nests, so need both arable and grassland nearby in order to thrive.
A beetle bank was also created on an old hedge line and acts as a boundary between two arable blocks. Mr Sutton-Scott-Tucker also applied for a set-aside derogation so the management would benefit the cirl bunting by providing more wintering opportunities, and several fields are partially left fallow, with the remainder planted with wild bird seed mixes.
Now in the Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) scheme, Mr Sutton-Scott-Tucker is growing winter barley, spring barley and oilseed rape. Though he used to do more winter cropping he has become aware that winter cropping does not work financially on his farm.
“I have not really had to compromise the arable management to fit with HLS and the field margins are of benefit as it means none of the hedgerows are growing out into the crops,” he explains. “I am only growing three crops to meet the three crop rule, otherwise I would grow more grass. We have to be very careful balancing between the Basic Payment Scheme and stewardship.”
When it comes to inputs, HLS means only certain herbicides can be used, and there are also pre-emergence limitations and no pre-harvest glyphosate.
“Management is not really different within HLS, other than herbicide and ploughing date of stubbles.” However, if the spring barley is planted to provide stubble, the issue is then what to plant following it. Mr Sutton-Scott-Tucker looks at whether his contractor can do any minimal cultivation or tine seeding, but generally cultivation is very conventional; plough, roll and a power harrow combination drill.
One issue Mr Sutton-Scott-Tucker has faced this year is that he has diseased larch on the farm. “Theoretically we cannot get to the woodland to remove it because we would have to cross grass and arable land under stewardship,” he explains. “I had to get a derogation to fulfil the Animals and Plant Health Agency order to remove the diseased larch.”
This has been done at Mr Sutton-Scott-Tucker’s expense. He has had to sell the wood standing and allow harvesters across his land for two months to remove and stack 1,500 tonnes of timber.
When getting involved with HLS, it helps to know which parts of the arable land do not perform, says Mr Sutton-Scott-Tucker. “Put the time in to start with, looking at which bits are productive and which bits you can leave clear.”
Unfortunately, the schemes can encourage sacrificial crops, he adds. “I originally fell into that bracket, which was not a great thing to do – just to plant some spring barley and forget it. You want to grow the best possible crop you can, as a commercial crop.
“The presence of cirl buntings is a very good benchmark for the health of the farm,” he says. With the RSPB looking after the birds the farmer monitors everything else at the same time, from arable weeds to invertebrates and the birds.
“The stewardship just fitted at the time and I could see the opportunity. However, if I were a keener farmer on less marginal land, I probably would not be involved.”
Mr Sutton-Scott-Tucker’s HLS agreement will end in 2017 and he is unsure where he will go from there, as some grassland is currently tenanted with the arable in-hand. “If I had tenants keen to manage the stewardship agreement, I would let them do it.”
He is considering taking on some sheep but is very much at a crossroads. “I will have a little break from stewardship once HLS has finished, but will be looking into Higher Tier in spring.”
Though the exact number of cirl buntings on the farm has not been recorded since 2004, numbers have increased noticeably, according to Cath Jeffs, cirl bunting project manager at the RSPB. “The site has retained cirl buntings and if Chris decides to apply for the new CS, then this is a good opportunity to look at his management and see how it can be tweaked to enhance the site once again.”
The farm is also host to a population of yellowhammers, another farmland species which has seen a population decline of 50 per cent in only 25 years.
Though the involvement in stewardship has thrown up a few challenges for Mr Sutton-Scott-Tucker, he still feels it is worth having a go when on a slightly less productive farm.
“I am on marginal land, close to the sea, and it is beautiful – I am making sure it stays a beautiful place forever.”