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Farming Subsidies Boost Wild Bird Populations

Wild flower meadows and hedgerows are crucial for biodiversity and are important habitats for wild birds. Unfortunately, an incredible 97% of British meadows have disappeared since the 1940’s due to increasingly intensive farming. Meadows, field margins and hedgerows were lost in a very short space of time and the result has been a dramatic decline in the populations of farmland birds.

Encouraging Results Revealed

The numbers of farmland birds have fallen by a disturbing 70% since the 1970s. In recent years the government and the European Union have attempted to address this issue and biodiversity in general by offering subsidies to farmers who dedicate portions of their land to helping wildlife. The latest analysis shows that these subsidies are yielding encouraging results.

The RSPB has conducted a study to assess the success of the subsidies. Farmers are rewarded for planting wild flowers and protecting nests. The RSPB study suggests that bird populations bounce back quickly from long-term declines as a result of these measures. But the RSPB has pointed out that the schemes will have to be expanded dramatically in order to fully reverse the decline in bird populations.

Reversing Decline

It is clear that managing land to accommodate the needs of wildlife does make a huge difference. But sporadic attempts at restoring biodiversity are not enough to reverse the damage already done. Environment secretary Michael Gove has said that after Brexit, the majority of farm subsidies in the new UK regime will be devoted to rewarding environmentally friendly developments rather than featuring payments for simply owning land. However, the current scheme has proved controversial due to late payments to the farmers.

60 Farms Assessed

During the RSPB study, 60 farms in three regions were assessed. The farms enrolled in the Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) scheme sow seed-rich plants and wild flowers, which are important for insects and provide food for birds. The farmers also leave sections of fields fallow for birds such as corn buntings and avoid hedgerow cutting when birds are nesting. It was found that such measures increased the numbers of farmland birds by up to 120% but the results varied dramatically between the various farmland species.

House sparrows and stock doves fared well whereas the yellow wagtail did not appear to benefit at all. The yellow wagtail is a migratory bird and it could be struggling due to issues encountered during its migration to Africa. Some species, including yellowhammers and lapwings, showed only temporary increases in numbers. This could have been due to the very wet summer of 2012 and freezing spring of 2013 as the farms were studied between 2008 and 2014.

How Much More Must Be Done?

Researchers have used the data from the study to assess how much land would have to be covered by environment schemes to stop the loss of farmland birds. They discovered that the current coverage was much lower than that needed. Coverage would have to be increased by up to 33%.

Michael Gove has said: "Leaving the EU gives us the opportunity to do more to protect our environment and wildlife, supporting farmers to manage the rich habitats and precious species under their stewardship in a more sustainable way. Our farmers are the original friends of the Earth and these results clearly demonstrate the vital role they play in protecting our wildlife and boosting biodiversity."

It will be interesting to see what actually happens!


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