Wild bird populations have been severely impacted by changing agricultural practices. Intense modern farming methods have destroyed the natural habitats of wild birds together with the habitats of the insects on which many of the birds feed.
Farmers face enormous challenges in remaining profitable. They have been forced to squeeze the highest possible yield from their arable land. This has meant that they have planted crops right up to the edge of each field, have used chemical fertilisers and have sprayed their crops with chemical pesticides. As a result, field margins featuring grasses and wild flowers have been lost and chemicals have leached out of the soil and into the watercourses, destroying the ecosystem.
With so many species severely threatened something had to be done. Environmental stewardship schemes now reward farmers financially for establishing habitats for wildlife on their land. New field margins and in-field habitats are helping wildlife populations to recover.
Field margins can be established to act as buffers which prevent soil erosion and chemical run-off into watercourses. Margins can also be planted with cereals and broad leaved plants which are not chemically treated and which are left to run to seed to provide food for wild birds. Grass margins provide valuable habitats for invertebrates whilst wild flower margins help pollinators like butterflies and moths to prosper. The insects which breed in the margins provide food for birds and reduce the need for pesticides as they feed on the aphids which eat the crops.
The field margins also become home to small mammals which are food sources for birds of prey. The margins act as corridors for a variety of creatures to move between habitats.
More and more farmers are creating environmentally beneficial field margins which should ensure that many threatened species enjoy a significant recovery. It is particularly important to support bee populations as bees have been in sharp decline in the UK. Without bees, plants, including crops, will not be pollinated and so will die out. If too many plants die out, there will be a shortage of oxygen in the atmosphere.
In addition to helping the environment, field margins are also an attractive sight, especially when planted with wild flowers and these areas eventually come alive with interesting birds and colourful butterflies.
Ground nesting birds including skylarks have been very badly affected by modern agricultural practices. They will not nest within 10 metres of a field's boundary and so field margins do not help them. Farmers are now establishing in-field habitats for the birds. These are small designated areas within the fields, suitably planted, where the birds have the cover they need and nesting opportunities.
Beetle banks are also being constructed to help insects. These features are mounds of earth running the length of the field where insects including beetles can over-winter. In spring, they emerge and begin to spread across the fields, eliminating crop pests.
With more land being deliberately managed to support wildlife, the future for many species is looking much brighter. Hopefully the farmers will continue to receive financial support for their efforts so the fight to save our native species can continue.