Skip to main content

Farmland Bird Populations

Volume 573: debated on Wednesday 15 January 2014

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Osborne. I thank Mr Speaker for giving me the opportunity to raise this subject here today.

It may seem slightly strange to the casual observer that a Member whose seat is based firmly in the suburbs should raise the subject of farmland birds, but as some colleagues will know—if the Minister did not know before, he will become aware of it not just today, but over the coming months and years—nature and birds have been a passion of mine for a long time. Of course, all these issues are relevant to us all, wherever we live.

I can remember waking up at home in Uxbridge to the sound of skylarks singing. Today I live in the house next door, but I am afraid that the sound of skylarks singing has been replaced by the rather alien shrieks of the ring-necked parakeet. However, I am pleased to say that one does not need to go too far away in the London borough of Hillingdon to go down to Minet park, where one can still hear and see skylarks.

At this time of year, our fields should be golden and alive, but not with the rapeseed and wheat that were everywhere a few months ago; they should be golden with yellowhammers and alive with flocks of other farmland birds and wildlife, waking up for spring. Yellowhammers are normally pretty solitary, but this time of year, as birders will know, they flock together, and when they lift from the stubble in the sun, it is a remarkable sight. I have secured this debate because yellowhammers, skylarks and many other farmland birds are in trouble.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. In my constituency, there have been three initiatives to increase the numbers of yellowhammers: at Calvert’s on Ballybryan road; Lord Dunleath’s estate in Ballywalter; and Martin Hamilton’s in Newtownards. All three projects to increase the number of yellowhammers have happened not only because of the commitment of farmers but because of the shooting organisations, such as the Countryside Alliance and the British Association for Shooting and Conservation. Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that a partnership needs to be achieved between landowners and shooting organisations for such initiatives to succeed?

Those organisations have a strong record on farmland birds. I am sometimes a little bit concerned about some of them regarding birds of prey on uplands, but that subject is for another day.

The farmland bird indicator, which is a scientific record of populations, shows that more than half of the UK’s skylarks, yellowhammers, linnets and lapwings have disappeared since the ’70s. Those birds are not the worst affected, because they can survive in other habitats, but species that live mainly on farmland, such as the grey partridge, turtledove, tree sparrow and corn bunting have declined by 85%.

To any hon. Member who wants to follow the changes in population and range of all those different species, I thoroughly recommend the British Trust for Ornithology’s new “Bird Atlas”, which maps out 40 years of data. It is a fantastic piece of science and a wonderful resource. Unfortunately, it paints a gloomy picture regarding farmland birds.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate. I have a particular fondness, as we all do for particular birds, for lapwings. Is he aware of the extraordinary work being done by people such as Philip Merricks? He has proved that, in order to get more than 0.7 chicks per pair fledged, one has to do a lot of intervention and work hard. He has managed to double the rate through good management of the Elmley reserve on the Isle of Sheppey. There are many lessons that we can learn from people like him. I agree with the gloomy reports of the current status of farmland birds that my right hon. Friend talks about, but we can turn that around over the next few years.

I was not aware of that piece of research, but I am aware of its general nature. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for much of the work he did when he was the Minister responsible for biodiversity. It is not always easy, because one cannot always do the things one really wants to do. I know what he does privately as well for farmland birds and for wildlife in general.

We have an opportunity to turn things around in the coming months. We know what the problem is: the main reason for the decline—there are others—is the intensification of farming methods. Changes in cropping patterns have led to a loss of winter stubbles, so the main feeding habitats for many birds, such as finches and buntings, have disappeared or have been greatly reduced. Greater use of pesticides and herbicides has removed critical food resources, and the loss of hedges and other semi-natural habitats, of which we are all aware, has combined with intensive grassland management to take away vital habitats.

I thank my right hon. Friend for raising this subject, which has been of huge interest to me all my life. Does he accept that one of the great dangers is the monocultures that are creeping into parts of our country, particularly maize? Huge areas are used to grow maize every year to feed energy plants, and that is probably causing more damage to birds and wildlife in those areas than anything else one could imagine.

I am delighted to hear of my hon. Friend’s great interest in the subject over many years. As a farmer himself, what he says exemplifies the fact that many farmers are keen conservationists and can do an awful lot for us; I will go on to that in a little while.

Many of the changes that I have been talking about have been driven by farm incentives under the common agricultural policy, which paid farmers to produce more, and these days, there is also pressure from competition to produce food ever more cheaply, but we know what some of the answers could be. As several of my hon. Friends present have proved, a farmer’s knowledge of his land is second to none. Many farmers leap at the chance to work their land in a way that provides a good habitat for plants and animals. I pay tribute to the many farmers who work tirelessly to conserve and improve habitats. Working with conservation groups, wildlife-friendly farmers have come up with the big three essential elements for farmland birds to thrive: safe nesting sites; invertebrate food for chicks in the spring and summer; and seed food over the winter.

I noticed with interest that in a recent edition of Country Life, the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust has urged both farmers and gamekeepers to sign up to its action plan for grey partridges—this goes to the point made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—which will help not only that species but other farmland species, and indeed mammals such as the iconic brown hare, which will be the subject of another debate from me.

The answers can be provided by simple solutions. A skylark plot is a tiny patch mown into the centre of a field. It allows birds to enter the thick crops and nest safely away from predators. Skylark plots have raised breeding success by 50%, but they are small enough to have no significant impact on crop yields. Other actions require a bit more effort, but we know that they work.

At the moment, the main tool for improving biodiversity is agri-environment schemes, under which farmers receive money for environmental stewardship. Let me give a couple of examples of the difference they can make. Under such schemes, cirl bunting numbers in south Devon have increased sevenfold, from 118 pairs in 1989 to 862 pairs in 2009. I am certainly showing my age when I say that I can remember going to watch cirl buntings in Buckinghamshire. Now they are completely confined, in England, down in the south-west. That is another example of how species have just disappeared. In Wiltshire and Norfolk, stone curlew numbers have recovered from just 160 pairs in the 1980s to 400 pairs in 2012, thanks to farmers working through agri-environment schemes. When we get the system right, farmers are expert in looking after our natural world.

Other parts of the system have not been quite as effective. The entry level stewardship part of agri-environment has been untargeted—frankly, some farmers have received money for old rope, as far as I, a non-farmer, can see; that is what it looks like to me. There are 65 activities to choose from under the scheme. Many farmers involved in the entry level stewardship have opted for the simplest measures that have the fewest benefits. One example is the low-input grassland option, which entails only modest restrictions on the use of fertiliser and provides few if any benefits to wildlife. The other big problem with environmental stewardship is that it has not been targeted properly. At the top end of the scheme, higher level stewardship has been targeted in 110 areas across England under a set of priority themes, but the entry level has been completely untargeted. That means that farmers can receive money for actions that make no ecological sense for the areas they are farming.

Our money from the common agricultural policy is divided into two parts: pillar one is a direct payment based on land-holding, and pillar two is for rural development, including the agri-environment money. In December, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced that it would transfer 12% of CAP funds from direct payments to rural development. The maximum of 15% would have been better, but 12% still provides a hefty £3.5 billion to spend between 2015 and 2020. I would welcome the Minister’s confirmation that the Department seriously intends to increase the transfer to 15% from 2018. Slightly less than £3.1 billion of that money will be spent through the next round of agri-environment spending, known as the new environmental land management scheme. It is a real chance to make good on the two big issues.

The new scheme must be targeted and, when we are talking about farmland birds, farmers need to deliver the big three conservation solutions if they are to receive the money. The Minister will be aware that DEFRA will make its decisions about the design of NELMS over the next few months. It is a great opportunity to design a scheme that will deliver for the environment by supporting farmers in taking the ecological steps that will enhance the value of their land for wildlife and the public at large. I hope that the Minister can assure me that biodiversity will be the top priority of the NELMS scheme. More specifically, I hope he agrees that to deliver the maximum value for money, we need a system that will dish out money only when farmers deliver the core conservation actions along with a system that targets the menu of conservation options to the area involved.

One issue that has not been touched on yet—the right hon. Gentleman might intend to come on to it—is the control of vermin to enhance these projects and help them work. Does he feel that the control of grey-backed crows, magpies and foxes, for example, is an integral part of any programme to help these bird populations grow?

The hon. Gentleman is leading me towards something in which I am not an expert. Obviously there is always a question about vermin, but it is a little more contentious, and I want to keep my comments very much on farmland birds. Like all these actions, vermin control can be a good thing, but it can also be rather contentious and it depends on where one is.

We have to ensure that Natural England has the resources it needs to provide specialist advice to farmers and land managers. Natural England is taking a 26% cut in its overall budget and a 38% cut in the portion of the budget that it manages directly. How will that affect the specialist advice needed to ensure that NELMS is working for our environment?

Finally, I want to touch on the direct payments, as there is an opportunity there as well. The rules for greening direct payments were watered down during the EU negotiations, but the UK can still make a couple of decisions to ensure that the subsidy delivers value for money. Again, we need to see a list of actions for the ecological focus areas that will make a real difference to biodiversity. DEFRA is about to review the cross-compliance rules, which are designed to ensure that farmers abide by the rules before they can make a claim. That includes rules like the retention of hedgerows and protection for sites of special scientific interest. The CAP costs the UK £10.3 billion a year, which is £398 a household. It is only right that we ensure that the money goes to farmers who are sticking by the rules and delivering maximum public benefit. I hope the Minister agrees that the rules need to be strengthened.

If they did not know it before, Members here, and those hopefully reading the debate later, will recognise that I am a committed birder. I have to speak out about biodiversity because it is my passion, but this is about more than a bearded man and his binoculars. Just last week, researchers at the university of Exeter found that moving to a green space had a sustained positive effect on people’s well-being, unlike pay rises or promotions, which only give a short-term boost, however welcome. Connection to nature is vital. Farmers are the stewards of three quarters of our land, so we must ensure that the system helps them deliver a healthy countryside. There are economic implications, too. We know that our farmers need to be competitive to provide affordable food, but we also know that they need help to deliver the wider benefits from their land. We have all heard about the plight of the bumblebee: of the 97 food plants that bumblebees prefer, 76% are in decline. It is not just bees that are vital pollinators. We need to look after the whole of our farmland diversity to help underpin the future of the sector.

This debate is about seizing the opportunities in front of us. Many of the decisions about farm funding have been made—many of them at European level—but the Minister has a chance over the next couple of months to help to create a farming sector that will thrive and fields that are alive with wildlife again. I hope he takes the opportunity to design a system that puts nature at its heart and delivers targeted and efficient support for our nature-friendly farmers. The magical sound of the song flight of the skylark is the quintessential sound of the British countryside, and I sincerely and earnestly want future generations to share in the joy that I and so many others have had in the natural world over the years. It is down to us to ensure that we do everything we can to ensure that that happens.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Sir John Randall) on securing this debate. He is passionate about bird life and has been a member of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds for some 50 years, which shows real dedication. I grew up around wildlife on a farm. In Cornwall, we used to get a lot of lapwings, because they often overwintered there. Like him, I have a passion for birds and wildlife, and I want to see the common agricultural policy promoting them.

My right hon. Friend highlighted that the trend in recent decades has been bleak. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs measures how birds fare through the farmland bird index, which is published every year as part of its biodiversity indicator suite. The index looks at 19 widespread species that feed in open farmland during the breeding season, and includes species such as lapwing, grey partridge, greenfinch, wood pigeon, skylark, corn bunting and yellowhammers. The evidence shows that the main decline in the index was from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. While the decline has continued, it has slowed since then.

It should be noted that not all farmland bird species have followed the overall trend. While grey partridge, turtle dove, tree sparrow and corn bunting are among those declining, wood pigeon, jackdaw, goldfinch and stock dove have all shown substantial increases. The wood pigeon, for example, has benefited from the increased availability of food as a result of cropping patterns switching to more oilseed rape, as many farmers could tell us.

The causes for the overall decline are complex and varied, but it is clear that the sharpest rate in decline coincided with major changes in agricultural land management and intensification. First, the switch from spring to autumn sowing of many cereal crops led to a loss of overwinter stubble fields, which has had a major impact on food sources. Secondly, the increased use of agri-chemicals, particularly during the 1970s, played an important part as well. Thirdly, the loss of field margins and hedgerows meant that farmland birds lost not only valuable sources of seed and insect food, particularly over the winter, but suitable nesting habitat. Recently, other natural factors have had an impact, particularly the weather. Many species have been vulnerable to the recent wet summers and cold winters. There is also disease; we know, for example, that trichomonosis has affected the greenfinch.

For some ground-nesting species such as lapwing, and game birds such as grey partridge, we have to acknowledge that predation by foxes and other predators has been a factor. The impact of predation varies between species. For farmland songbirds, for instance, there is little evidence of an effect, perhaps because they often have more than one brood and will re-nest after predation, and are therefore better able to withstand its effects. There is some evidence that predation is likely to have a greater impact on bird populations where habitat is in poor condition, perhaps because it has been degraded through overgrazing; nests may be more exposed and suffer higher loss rates to predators.

Having outlined the causes of the decline and the nature of the problem, I want to say something about what we hope to do, and the possible solutions. Our agri-environment schemes are the principal means of improving habitat for farmland birds in England; they provide funds for farmers to manage the cropped environment and provide additional habitat and food on their farms for farmland birds and other wildlife. Agri-environment measures that benefit birds include providing overwintered stubble, so that there is seed in winter, and wild bird seed mixtures in spring and summer, and the sympathetic management of hedgerows. Today there are about 50,000 farmers in England in agri-environment schemes, representing about 70% of available farmland. As part of the rural development programme for England, we spend about £400 million a year on those schemes.

As I said earlier, although we have stemmed the rate of decline and have turned a corner with respect to some species, we need overall to ask why, having spent a great deal of money in recent years on such countryside stewardship schemes, we have not yet reversed the decline, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), other hon. Members present, and I would want.

The first thing to consider is management options under the stewardship schemes. We would certainly have liked better uptake of management options beneficial to farmland birds. My right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip highlighted the weaknesses of the entry-level stewardship scheme in particular. We have looked at ways of encouraging greater uptake of those management options to benefit farmland birds.

In 2013, as a result of the review, we introduced into the schemes specific measures that enable farmers to provide supplementary feeding for birds in winter, to begin to address what is known as the hungry gap between midwinter and early spring, when seed food is depleted and before other food sources become available. That simple measure involves providing seeds on the ground or in hoppers to supplement the seed in stubble and wild bird seed crops. Another new measure that we introduced in 2013 involved leaving the last cut ryegrass silage unharvested, to allow grass to set seed and provide a seed source over winter.

A study by Baker and others published in 2012 for the British Trust for Ornithology showed that there is strong evidence that the provision of winter food resources produces positive effects in relation to the population growth of a number of species. The study results underline the importance of getting farmers to choose those targeted measures that we have already introduced, to deliver the outcomes we need.

Natural England, which administers environmental stewardship, has worked with many conservation bodies to develop farmland bird packages, setting out minimum requirements for the options by which farmers can provide nesting habitat, invertebrate chick food and adult seed food. They have been targeted at areas in England known to hold important populations of farmland birds and have been promoted by Natural England and the RSPB.

The Minister makes a strong argument for the way modern farming can live in harmony with wildlife, and for how environmental schemes can improve bird numbers. All those present for the debate will agree about that. However, he has not touched on habitat destruction through uncontrolled planning and flooding. Is he in conversations with any of his ministerial colleagues at the Department for Communities and Local Government about whether that aspect of the matter can be tightened up?

It is probably a topic for a separate debate, but my hon. Friend will know that we are considering approaches such as biodiversity offsetting; when planning permission is granted and a habitat is damaged, there would be a process enabling local authorities to put things right somewhere else. There is potential to get that moving and to try to help habitats damaged by development.

Natural England has worked with the RSPB and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust to try to improve the working of the ELS scheme. The Campaign for the Farmed Environment has also done a lot to promote good practice. It is a voluntary industry-led initiative, where key industry partners work with environmental groups to encourage farmers to undertake voluntary environmental management. It is funded jointly by the industry and DEFRA, which has committed about £700,000 for this year and next to support its activities. Currently the campaign is promoting skylark and lapwing plots, wild bird seed mix strips, unsprayed overwinter stubbles and winter feeding.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip mentioned the common agricultural policy. As he said, we have gone to a 12% modulation rate. We have also taken the decision to increase the percentage of the pillar two budget spent on agri-environment schemes from 83% to 87%, so increasing the total amount being spent. Between now and 2020 we shall spend well over £3 billion on agri-environment schemes, and I confirm that we intend to review the position in 2016, with a view to moving to a full 15% modulation, subject to sufficient demand for the schemes and to concluding an analysis of the competitiveness of British agriculture.

My right hon. Friend highlighted some of the shortcomings of the ELS, and as he said, we plan for a new environmental land management scheme to replace it. The new scheme will build on the acknowledged successes of the environmental stewardship scheme in a positive way: it will be more targeted and focused. The new proposed mid-tier will identify areas of particular priorities for given objectives and incentivise the right options; we call that the directed option choice.

Biodiversity is among the things that I want to promote as we design NELMS. I want to make sure we have those directed options, so that there must be certain options, from a particular list, that will prioritise the recovery of farmland birds. I want us to look at that closely as we develop the approach. The directed option choice will enable us to encourage farmers to maximise the environmental outcomes on their land, in response to the agreed environmental priorities in their area, rather than simply seeking the lowest-cost or most convenient options. In addition, we shall adopt a landscape-scale approach to establishing NELMS. I hope that that will result in some critical mass and wildlife corridors, and a concentrated improvement in habitats to sustain the recovery of certain bird species.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury and my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, I want to reverse the decline in bird populations, and I do not believe that that is incompatible with continued farming. Many of the measures that can help farmland birds are entirely compatible with modern farming practices. I recently had a meeting with the RSPB, and we discussed some of the good work that they are doing at Hope farm in Cambridgeshire. I hope to visit in the spring; this very morning, my office has been trying to find a date for that.

The number of farmland birds at Hope farm has doubled since 2000, mainly because of land management undertaken through environmental stewardship. A particular success has been the fourfold increase in skylark numbers, which has been achieved simply through skylark plots. The RSPB representatives described to me how during the drilling of a cereal crop the drill is shut off periodically to produce the skylark plots. That is a simple management measure, which does not really affect the profitability of the farm, but has a huge effect on the skylark population. I look forward to my meeting with the RSPB and learning more about that.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend again on obtaining the debate, and reassure him that we shall prioritise biodiversity as we design the new environmental land management scheme.

Sitting suspended.