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A haven for farmland birds on our doorstep in the Cambridge green belt





Take almost any journey out of Cambridge and on the margins of the city you will see new houses being built. Much of the land was green belt but has been redesignated for building. Every building contractor has an ecologist who makes the case that each development will have a biodiversity net gain.

The trouble is that most new housing is built on agricultural land and any net gains rarely include farmland birds.

Grey partidge. Picture: John Meed
Grey partidge. Picture: John Meed

The State of Nature 2019 report says that “bird species most closely associated with farmland have declined more severely than birds in any other habitat”. We have lost 93 per cent of our grey partridges, 89 per cent of our corn buntings, 60 per cent of our yellowhammers and 50 per cent of our skylarks. The turtle dove is on the brink of extinction.

The main reasons for these losses are the changes in agricultural practice, particularly increased use of insecticides and herbicides, the loss of 250,000 miles of hedgerows, and changes in cropping. Most arable wheat, barley and oilseed rape crops are autumn sown leaving no over-winter stubbles on which birds can feed.

John Meed, a local birdwatcher and musician, has made a study of our local farmland birds close to Addenbrooke’s Hospital in a square kilometre around Nine Wells nature reserve. “It’s my local patch” says John “It’s the nearest green space to my home. I have been watching and recording farmland birds there for the last 12 years making 35 to 40 visits a year.”

Yellowhammer. Picture: John Meed
Yellowhammer. Picture: John Meed

John has written a book based upon his records and observations: “A haven for farmland birds. The unexpected treasures of a small patch of arable land in the Cambridge green belt.”

“Since I began my observations, two fields out of the eight I study have lost green belt status and the local council would like to take two more out of the green belt. The expansion of the Biomedical Campus is currently the biggest pressure” added John.

John describes local success stories. The corn bunting is now extinct in Ireland and Wales and rare in the west of England. It is an arable farmland specialist. It nests on the ground in late June and its eggs may be destroyed when winter barley is harvested in July or the young killed when winter wheat is harvested a month later.

Corn bunting. Picture: John Meed
Corn bunting. Picture: John Meed

“Despite this,” said John, “the corn bunting population of Nine Wells increased to 11 territories.”

A specialist bird of this area is the grey partridge.

“They can occur in a family group or covey of up to 15 birds” said John “As parents they care for their offspring for seven months – one of the longest periods of parental care in the bird world – and will risk death to defend partner and chicks.”

John’s most recent winter count is 73 individual birds. The key to the success of the grey partridge is insect-rich field margins.

The skylark is the epitome of farmland birds.

Front cover of John Meed's book: A haven for farmland birds
Front cover of John Meed's book: A haven for farmland birds

“It has inspired poets from Shelly to Ted Hughes and composers from Vaughan Williams to Hoagy Carmichael” said John. “During its song flight it can rise up to 200 metres and one recorded song flight lasted 35 minutes”

Around Nine Wells there are about 50 breeding territories.

John also records migrant birds on passage, and especially in March ring ousels and wheatears are regular and the occasional merlin, our smallest falcon, hunts among the skylark flocks. Last spring, a little-ringed plover frequented the hospital’s heliport!

Yellow wagtail. Picture: John Meed
Yellow wagtail. Picture: John Meed

A review of John’s book by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) says: “We are lucky to have people like John …… this lovely book is well worth the 144 whistle stop pages” and Martin Baker, conservation manager of the Wildlife Trust, calls it “a rallying cry to promote and adopt the nature-friendly farming approach you describe much more widely."

John’s book: A haven for farmland birds can be bought from the Natural History Book Store (nhbs.com) for £11.99 or from johnmeed.net.



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