On a warm sunny day in September 2019 a group of enthusiastic farmers attended the Rother Valley Farmer’s Group (RVFG) Farmland Bird Event. RVFG member and farmer, Mr. Andrew Leggs, kindly hosted the event at Leggs Farm, located in West Sussex at the foot of part of the South Downs way.
Dr. Richard Black from the RSPB provided excellent detailed information on what different farmland birds need to thrive and farmers discussed how this was best delivered while maintaining a profitable farm. The RVFG promotes environmental conservation at the landscape scale with multiple farms actively working together and has set wildlife targets which include three species of farmland birds: barn owl, yellowhammer and lapwing. We saw how a barn had two bird boxes located at either end of the roof; one a home to kestrels and the other barn owls, both of which had reared successful young.
A farm member questioned why he hadn’t managed to attract barn owls to part of his farm despite providing a nest box with good suitable habitat nearby; from the ensuing discussion it was thought likely that this may be due to a high number of tawny owls which can out compete and keep barn owls at bay. The rise in large predator birds such as buzzards and red kites was also discussed, reasserting their place in nature.
We looked at two different game cover crops of maize and a brassica green cover crop – the latter offering asubstantially better habitat resource for birds because it holds more invertebrates which are critical to young bird chicks during their first weeks and months of life as they are rich in protein and fat. Insects have declined in numbers with most species declining by about half since the 1970s and remaining low since this date.
Dr. Black noted how the physical height and structure of crops are also important with short/open areas needed to allow young birds to forage. Similarly, we learned how yellowhammers will often try and nest in hedges near the ground at the start of the year which requires a thick grassy understorey and the benefits of block cutting hedges on alternate years. In many cases it was noted how improving habitat for birds will also benefit conditions for pollinators which in turn are important for the successful germination of many crops. Options from agri-environment stewardship that help farmland birds were also discussed.
The event ended with a buffet lunch at the nearby Unicorn Inn providing a friendly space to chat and discuss what we had seen on our guided walk. Many thanks to all our members for supporting this event.