The RSPB’s Hope Farm in Knapwell shows how wildlife-friendly farming really can work
PUBLISHED: 22:57 23 May 2017 | UPDATED: 15:34 27 May 2017
This Cambridgeshire arable farm is demonstrating that something can be done to reverse worrying declines in our farmland birds.
The unmistakable sound of the skylark cascades from the clear morning sky, like melodious rainfall.
Lapwings, crested and iridescent, feed diligently among the crops while brown hares, all long limbs and ears, gambol about the farmland enthusiastically.
Bright and sonorous yellowhammers enliven the hedgerows and then, arrowing past, a flying squadron of swallows fork their way over the barley field.
As if not to be outdone, a pair of swifts – the first of the season, back from Africa – scythe their way through the still air, collecting insects with unerring accuracy.
This is not some pre-Industrial Revolution rural idyll. This is Knapwell, on May 5, 2017.
More precisely, this is Hope Farm, the appropriately named RSPB-owned testbed that is demonstrating how agriculture and wildlife can work hand-in-hand. This is conservation science in action.
The farm was bought for about £1.5million using members’ donations back in 2000.
“We knew what was going wrong with farmyard birds but we didn’t know farming,” recalls Derek Gruar, senior research assistant for the RSPB.
“Our remit is to be a commercial farm – we are not a nature reserve. But we’ve learnt masses, bird numbers are through the roof and it’s helped our agricultural advisors in the UK to show what can done on other farms.”
The importance of this for the UK’s wildlife is difficult to understate given that, astonishingly, three-quarters of the UK is farmland.
Birds are a good indicator of the health of the natural world. And the UK Farmland Bird Index makes for alarming reading.
Since 1970, breeding farmland birds have fallen by 54 per cent. Some populations have collapsed – turtle dove numbers have plummeted by 97 per cent, grey partridges by 92 per cent and corn buntings by 91 per cent.
Hope Farm in numbers
2010 - 10 skylark territories
2015 - 43 skylark territories
2010 - 14 yellowhammer territories
2015 - 35 yellowhammer territories
England’s Farmland Bird Index (FBI) has dropped by around 10% since 2000
Hope Farm’s FBI increased by 174% from 2000 levels by 2015
Wintering bird numbers up 1,778% since 2000
Winter 2000-01 - peak count of 2 yellowhammers
Winter 2015-16 - peak count of 723 yellowhammers
Likewise, pollinators – essential for growing crops – are in serious decline. And soil erosion and quality are causing farmers real concern. So what has been going wrong?
With populations rising and consumers demanding low prices at the supermarket, farms have become models of efficiency.
To drive high yields, fields have become larger and simpler, enabling huge agricultural vehicles to travel across them with ease. Hedgerows and floral margins have disappeared, while the use of pesticides and other agrochemicals have devastated insect and invertebrate populations. These intensive factories of the land have left birds without the habitat and food sources they need.
“We used to look after the land in a more sustainable way,” says Derek. “But we all like our cheap food. The expanding size of machinery is where the loss of biodiversity has come from – there are no seeds left out in the environment.”
When Derek and colleagues arrived at Hope Farm at the turn of the millennium, they found a typical lowland arable farm, with minimal environmental measures. By considering how to provide food and shelter for wildlife, they have transformed its fortunes, while posting a healthy profit.
“It’s a brilliant project,” said Derek. “I came here just after we bought it and when you did the winter bird counts here you saw nothing.
“In the first winter the maximum count for yellowhammers was two birds. This year we’ve had more than 200. Last year, we had a really good cover crop, which was rich in cereal seed, and we had more than 700.
“Breeding bird numbers have massively increased as well. We had 10 skylark territories in 2000 – now we’re up in the thirties or forties.”
The figures are truly startling. In 2000, the maximum winter bird count – the number of birds seen during a mass counting session across the 181-hectare (450-acre) farm – was just 308. Last year, it was 2,542.
So how has it been done?
Although individual species have their own needs, the RSPB says there are three essentials to improve bird numbers on farmland: Safe nesting places, food in spring and summer for growing chicks and food and shelter over the winter.
“Most birds feed on invertebrates and insects over the summer because they need protein for their chicks to grow quickly,” explains Derek.
Wide margins around crop fields have been planted with wildflower mixtures to encourage insects and invertebrates, while a beetle bank provides safe refuge for a natural pest controller.
“Birds also need safe nesting habitat in the crop or hedgerows, so we have in-field skylark plots and hedgerows that are not cut too often to provide protection from the elements. We’ve done research that shows if you cut hedgerows every three to four years you get a woody dense structure that prevents corvids [members of the crow family] predating the nests as easily,” adds Derek.
Hedges trimmed every three years also produce 14 times the weight of berries compared to those cut annually.
“Then in the winter, birds switch their diet,” continues Derek. “Small passerines – perching birds – like yellowhammers and linnets depend on seeds for their diet.”
"In the first winter the maximum count for yellowhammers was two birds. This year we’ve had more than 200."
Rather than leaving bare soil to the elements – which offers little food for birds and contributes to erosion, Hope Farm is using cover crops in winter and wild bird seed mixtures to provide valuable food, especially cereal grain.
“Cover crops are destroyed just before you plant the spring crops. They stop soil erosion, add green manure and can help drainage. They add some nutrients and there are radishes in there that have deep roots that break up the soil surface,” says Derek.
“We are looking at the biodiversity benefits of the cover crops down to the microbial levels and right up to birds and mammals. We’ve got pitfall traps out for beetles and a MSc and PhD students looking at the invertebrates.
“Anecdotally, it looks really good. The cover crops seem to get used by the birds quite readily. We’ve also found with them the soil stays quite moist so things that probe into the soil like starlings, fieldfares and snipe will use them. We’ve even had a short-eared owl nest in the cover crop this winter too.”
Intriguingly, the farm hasn’t shied away from using agrochemicals.
“We have an agronomist and the choices are made on agronomic lines,” says Derek. “We use herbicides and most chemicals that farmers would. We only use pesticides as a last resort – we’d have to have a serious aphid or beetle infestation. We try to keep it to a minimum with good husbandry. We know exactly what we’ve put on the farm, when and where.”
Measures like the pollen and nectar margins and skylark plots have taken a small proportion of land out of production though – so has this hit the finances?
“We have to be profitable – and we’re reasonably good at that,” says Derek.
The land is farmed under contract, as is typical today. The contractors, who farm 2,500 hectares across multiple sites, receive a 77 per cent share of the profits, with the RSPB taking the rest, along with a fixed return as owner of the land. Accounts for 2012-2014 show the RSPB securing an income of between £45,000-£57,000.
Crop selection is based on the advice of the farm’s agronomist.
“All our original crops were grown in autumn,” says Derek. “Now we’re predominately spring cropping and we’re looking at soil condition and using cover crops over winter. This year, we’ve got winter wheat, spring barley, millet, oil seed rape. Last year we also had linseed and beans.”
Some of the oil seed rape is turned into a Hope Farm branded cooking oil that you can purchase from RSPB outlets.
Derek says: “Everyone now has yield maps and the combines will tell you exactly what is going into the hopper so you can tell what bits of your fields are fiddly corners that the 18 metre booms on the back of your tractor can’t get around. You can take out some of the lesser parts of your land out of production. These are the areas that you can put into wildlife management. It’s just another diversification.”
Hope Farm, then, provides hope. But how do other farmers respond?
“There is certainly a lot of interest. A lot of people have taken up agri-environment scheme measures that we have trialled,” says Derek. “Things where you can grow crops – like the pollen and nectar margins – are taken up quite readily.
“The wild bird seed mixes also go well. If there’s anything a little bit novel or in the middle of fields, it needs a bit more promotion.
“But it’s getting better and there are some real champions.
“We do a lot of outreach work with agricultural advisers and people come here. There are discussions with farmers’ unions and groups. We look at policy at a governmental level. We encourage them to put the best things into a scheme and make it too good not to take up.”
What impact will Brexit have then on farming subsidies?
“Nobody knows,” admits Derek. “But it gives us a chance to do something really good – to take stock of the whole scheme and put in some really excellent high value nature options. Or it could go the wrong way…”
Policy-makers would be well-advised to visit Hope Farm to see just how to ensure that doesn’t happen.
Saving the skylark
With their fluttering, vertical flight and distinctive song, the skylark is an icon among farmland birds.
But its numbers are declining fast.
“There was work done by Paul Donald that showed wheat crop is just too dense for skylarks to get into so they were nesting near the tramlines and suffering massive predation – 90 per cent from mammals like weasel, badger and stoat and almost all at night,” says Derek.
The concept of the skylark plot was born. Areas of the field – about four metres by four metres – were left free of crops to create safe areas.
“The ideas was if we could put some other areas in the field they could nest in those. But it didn’t work out like that. They use it like a landing strip and foraging area. They then scurry off into the crop,” says Derek.
“You want little bits of vegetation so you have enough stuff for invertebrates to live in here.”
Research has shown skylarks have more chicks and their fledglings are more likely to succeed in fields with skylark plots.
Farmers can create them by switching off the seed drill during crop establishment. They should be put at least 50 metres in from the edge of the field to reduce predation. It is also possible to spray out the crop later but this needs to be done before Christmas to be effective.
Another experiment is exploring the best use of the pollen and nectar margins. Two different wildflower mixes, one with fine grasses and one with tussocky grass in, have been planted and different methods of scarification have been studied to look at the optimum approach.
“It looks like disturbing the soil every two years with a power harrow gives you a good flower mix,” says Derek.
Meanwhile reeds have been planted to help take some of the nitrates out of the watercourse and an experiment with using clover – a good nitrogen fixer - among wheat crops is also being trialled.
Hope Farm opens to the public
You can see wildlife-friendly farming for yourself on LEAF Open Farm Sunday – a national event taking place on June 11.
The farm will open for free from 10am-2pm.
Georgina Bray, assistant farm manager, says: “We’ve got all sorts going on such as bird-ringing demonstrations and a lot of children’s activities.
“There will be bug hotel-building, arts and crafts and we want to show some of the research we’ve done.
Butterflies and bees at Hope Farm
In 2015, numbers of butterflies were up 224% from 2000 levels
This was down to more flowers at the edges of fields, providing more food for butterflies
Hope Farm has three times as many bumblebees as a nearby farm which doesn’t have so many flowers around the edges
“We will show people the farm on a tractor and trailer. We are hoping to get some farm animals from the local area and there will be a nature trail where kids can actively search for things.
“We want to give people a taste of what wildlife-family farming is about.
“We want to communicate to the wider public how food gets from a field to the plate and think about the implications of what you buy.”
She adds: “A lot of people want to see this farm work because they realise the benefit it would have in other parts of the country.”