Biodiversity: Enhancing Arable Biodiversity. Six practical solutions for farmers (SAFFIE)

Encouraging birds

Why it matters

Farmland birds are a government 'quality of life' indicator and an important measure of the health of the UK countryside. Populations and ranges of many familiar species have halved since 1970.

Changes in farm practice, especially increased winter cropping and loss of hedgerows, have been the main reasons for these declines. New agri-environment schemes, eg ELS, aim to encourage practices that protect and enhance wildlife. Better understanding of the interactions between different measures in the schemes, can help farmers choose the best options for biodiversity.

The research

The second phase of SAFFIE research assessed the benefits of integrating the most promising treatments on 26 farms. Comparisons were made between fields with or without skylark plots and with or without scarified grass/wild flower margins.

Farmland birds were monitored in wheat fields of at least 5ha on 26 farms. The impact of the techniques on farmland bird numbers was calculated from field data.

Supplementary work, in the last year of the study, also assessed the impacts of predators on ground-nesting birds.

The results

Key results were:

  • Integrating skylark plots with scarified grass margins, sown with grass/wild flower mix, gave a three to four-fold increase in numbers of BAP and FBI bird species compared with a wheat crop without margins.
  • Skylark plots and scarified margins both improved bird numbers although bird numbers increased to a greater extent where both treatments were used.
  • Better access into crop and field margins benefited birds, rather than an increased food supply.
  • Beetles, an important bird food, increased in scarified margins.
  • Skylark predation increased where skylark plots and grass margins were in the same field, but predation of species nesting in hedges was not affected. Predation of skylark nests was greatest close to margins, the area where predators most actively seek food.

The economics

There are no additional costs from skylark plots in fields with scarified wild flower/grass margins.

Impact of predators

In 2005, predation was identified as a cause of poor nest survival amongst ground-nesting birds in fields with grass margins, particularly when skylark plots were added. During 2006, infra-red cameras close to skylark nests confirmed predation by various mammals. To protect ground-nesting birds, wherever practical skylark plots should be placed at least 50m (preferably 75m) from field edges, away from the areas where predators most actively seek food and shelter in grass margins, hedges or trees.

Infra-red camera  
  Skylark nesting in soil crack

To find out more:

Best Practice Guide - Margins, Mixtures and Management, Skylark Plots (CPA)

Farming for Wildlife - Skylark Plots Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB)

ELS Handbook - Skylark Plots EF8 (Defra)

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