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Conservation: Farmland Birds

Volume 709: debated on Tuesday 24 March 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what outcome they expect from the South West Farmland Birds Initiative which is being carried out in conjunction with Natural England, the Cotswolds Conservation Board, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and other organisations.

My Lords, the South West Farmland Birds Initiative plans to create key habitats for six declining species of farmland birds using environmental stewardship and targeted advice. The partnership project aims to demonstrate how a similar model might be applied across England in other areas that support these species. The project expects to work with 1,500 farmers and over 40,000 hectares of farmland. This should deliver improved habitat for birds, leading to sustainable populations of the six target species.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. I declare as a farmer and a landowner that it is important that the decline in farmland birds be reversed. However, how can that decline be reversed when this initiative is delivering only on habitat and does not include the predation of farmland birds? An RSPB report said that there is growing evidence, and good evidence, that ground-laying birds such as the lapwing and the grey partridge are being limited by not only habitat but predation. How can this initiative deliver if it does not deal with the predation part of the problem?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his support of the initiative in general. Predation is clearly the main reason for egg and chick losses in many bird species, but many species can withstand high levels of predation. My understanding is that the RSPB work has shown, and this has been corroborated, that predator control is really effective in increasing bird populations. We are interested in the noble Lord’s views. These matters will have to be taken into consideration as we take the project forward.

My Lords, does the Minister acknowledge that the era of set-aside was unexpectedly successful in maintaining a wide variety of species of farmland birds? Is he satisfied that the move to single farm payments, taking into account the habitats directive and cross-compliance rules, will be equally successful? If not, why not, and what will the Government do about it?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right. We think that set-aside had a positive impact and, with its removal, we have been looking at mitigating factors that might be brought into play. Sir Don Curry chaired the group, and we have consulted on two options in particular on the mitigation of set-aside. We will consider the way forward in the light of comments that we have received.

My Lords, the species that are subject to predation include sparrows and song birds. Can we ever expect the RSPB to recommend a controlled cull of sparrow-hawks, which are doing an awful lot of damage, or is that too much to hope for?

My Lords, I am happy to pass on the noble Lord’s comments to the RSPB. It is notable that in a report this morning the RSPB seems to have come to a refreshing view on the attributes of inland wind farms, so I have no doubt that it will pay careful attention to the noble Lord’s comments.

My Lords, has my noble friend seen the work of the Game Conservancy Trust, which shows that, by having proper land management with some predation control, one can increase the population of many woodland birds, as well as upland wading birds?

My Lords, that is a very helpful comment and I shall certainly ensure that my department is made fully aware of it. The whole point of this project is to give tailored advice to farmers through workshops and one-to-one advice. We are very keen to ensure that farmers do all that is necessary. My noble friend made a point about proper management, which can have a very positive impact on birds’ habitats and future survival.

My Lords, will this very worthwhile project draw on the experience and expertise of the Allerton project team, and is there a role for Defra’s so-called RADAR zone—the Rapid Analysis and Detection of Animal-related Risks information system?

My Lords, we clearly wish to have to the fore all elements of good advice that can be made available, so of course we welcome input from RADAR and all the other organisations that noble Lords have suggested. This project has not yet started but it will run for two and a half years, and the aim is to see what impact it has. If it is seen to have a positive impact, it can be rolled out in other parts of the country. Clearly, we want to learn from all organisations that can give effective advice in this project.

My Lords, I am a landowner in Northern Ireland. Looking at the four organisations that have been appointed to carry out this initiative, I find it difficult to see them working successfully towards the result for which we would all hope. The RSPB, Natural England and the other groups in this field are not really natural bedfellows. What is the Minister’s view on that?

My Lords, that is all the more reason for bringing them together. We need to ensure that there is proper ownership and that many of the inevitable tensions, to which the noble Lord has alluded, are dealt with effectively. The four organisations are all supported by the National Farmers’ Union, Plantlife International, the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, the Ministry of Defence and the National Trust, so we are not short of advisers and supporters on this initiative.