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Birds: Farmland Populations

Volume 724: debated on Tuesday 18 January 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they intend to take regarding the decline of farmland bird populations.

My Lords, agri-environment schemes, such as Environmental Stewardship, are currently delivering improvements to farmland bird habitats, with nearly 70 per cent of English farmland within such schemes. Improving habitats can help to increase population numbers, but we are also reviewing how we can deliver Environmental Stewardship schemes to deliver better outcomes.

In addition, Defra is committed to developing a new biodiversity strategy by spring 2011 setting out our approach to conserving biodiversity in England.

I thank my noble friend for his comforting words, which will comfort all farmers like me. But are the Government still committed to halting the decline in farmland birds by 2020? Is he aware that, in 1970, the conservation spend was around £10 million? We now spend hundreds of millions of pounds on conservation to halt this decline. Would the Government consider commissioning an experimental survey on the predation of farmland birds so that we have a better understanding of why over the past 40 years there has been a continuing steady decline in farmland birds?

My Lords, my noble friend is quite right to say that there has been a decline: we have figures that show that that is happening. It is difficult to take figures from one year to the next, but over the period there has been a steady decline. The precise causes of that decline are another matter, but my noble friend is right to point out that predation is obviously one among many causes. The important thing is that all those involved in the management and ownership of land do what they can by involving themselves in these schemes and in terms of predator control and general management to do their best to improve the environment for farmland birds.

My Lords, I declare an interest in that a considerable body of the research on this topic has been carried out by my students at the University of Oxford. Does the Minister agree with the results of a study from the University of Leeds by Professor Benton that was published last year, which showed that organic farming is not more beneficial to wildlife, including bird populations, contrary to the claims of many in the organic industry?

My Lords, I have not seen that study, but I will certainly take the opportunity to look at it and respond to noble Lord in due course. The important thing, as I made clear in my Answer to my noble friend, is that we encourage as many people as possible to do many different things under the schemes to create as much diversity as possible. In the end, that is bound to improve the habitat of birds.

Does my noble friend agree that well keepered sporting estates tend to have a greater variety of wildlife, particularly small birds, songbirds and the like, as those who spend any time on such estates know well?

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely correct and I am grateful for the opportunity to endorse everything he said.

My Lords, can my noble friend give the House an update on the progress of the Campaign for the Farmed Environment, particularly the increase in in-field options that many farmland birds rely on for nesting and feeding?

As my noble friend is fully aware, we continue to support the Campaign for the Farmed Environment along with all the other bodies such as the RSPB, the NFU, the British Trust for Ornithology, CLA and the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust. They support it, we support it and we will continue to support those bodies and provide something of the order of £1.5 million over the next three years. I endorse what my noble friend said about the particular scheme that she mentioned.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that for many years modern farming methods were accused of reducing the habitat for farmland birds, but that has now changed with the environmental support that people get? The Minister said that the control of predators was one of Defra’s aims. Unfortunately, many of these predators are protected, such as the raptors, badgers and hedgehogs. How can farmland birds be protected at the same time as those animals?

My Lords, I did not say that it was an aim of Defra: I said that control of predators where possible was one matter among many that should be addressed by all those involved in farming and the management of land. That would help to increase the diversity around and improve the habitat for the birds that we are so concerned about.

My Lords, given the difficulty in halting the decline of farmland birds, despite the huge efforts of volunteers and despite the environmental schemes that we have, will the department bring together all the interested parties to try to work out an effective way forward? Will the Minister also give a firm commitment to continue funding the environmental schemes such as the Higher Level Scheme, which seem to have been more effective in tackling this problem than others?

My Lords, I would have thought that what we do for the Campaign for the Farmed Environment is exactly what the noble Baroness is talking about in terms of the leadership that she would like from Defra. We will continue to support its work and support agri-environment schemes because we think that they are one way forward to help improve biodiversity for birds. Obviously, they take a very long time before they have any effect on the decline in birds which, as my noble friend made clear, has been going on some 40 years.

My Lords, I think that goes slightly beyond the Question on the Order Paper, but I am not aware of any fear of bird flu affecting farmland birds, to which this Question refers.