Environment-friendly farming at Deeping St Nicholas

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And, as the Deeping St Nicholas farmer points out, he is getting paid for it.

The barn owl chicks bred at Vine House Farm. Photo: Nicholas Watts

The barn owl chicks bred at Vine House Farm. Photo: Nicholas Watts

Nicholas (72) farms at Vine House Farm where he grows and sells thousands of tonnes of bird food as well as organic crops.

His family has farmed there since 1883, and Nicholas has been at the farm long enough to have seen the alarming decline in birds and wildlife.

It takes a man with a long memory or one who is good at keeping records of bird numbers, the daily weather and changing farming practices to understand why birds are struggling.

For instance, the farm’s success in 2014 with barn owls – see the seven barn owl chicks right – can partly be attributed to the barn owl boxes that have gone up on the farm and the six metre grass margins that provide habitats for their food, the field vole.

The wood pigeon. Photo: Nicholas Watts

The wood pigeon. Photo: Nicholas Watts

In that year the farm had 13 breeding pairs, yet in 2015 there were none, because there were no voles.

A chain of events explains how barn owls, the food they eat and the weather are interconnected. In 2012 Nicholas says there were no barn owls flying in the day-time in February and March, a sure sign there were plenty of voles. By the time of the wet April and May barn owls could be seen in the day time, because the wet weather upset vole numbers.

A particularly cold second half of March 2013 meant barn owls died because they couldn’t find food, but the good summer meant voles bred well – and there weren’t the barn owls to eat them.

By 2014, the voles were breeding “like fury”, says Nicholas, and the barn owls responded and had second broods.

Nicholas Watts. Photo: SG310316-131TW

Nicholas Watts. Photo: SG310316-131TW

Nicholas expects there will be several pairs when breeding starts in May this year.

A success on the farm is the lapwing – there were 50 breeding pairs last year. Nicholas says they leave a bit of stubble for them to breed in, the birds nearly always producing four eggs a pair.

The tree sparrow has declined by 90 per cent, mainly because they need a hole in a tree or a building to nest in, and there aren’t a lot of those around in the Fens, so nest boxes have been put up on the farm for them.

Intensive farming doesn’t encourage the insects that the tree sparrow feeds on, but the farm has provided ponds and mixed-species hedges to encourage them, and also feeds the birds red millet.

White throats – typically heard on the farm for the first time around April 12 to 15 – are also doing well. Nicholas says they like to feed on any vegetation not cut down the previous year, so won’t appear on tidy farms.

Warblers in general are not doing too badly, with plenty of smaller insects for them to feed on, while skylarks are “holding their own”.

The development of intensive agriculture since the 1960s has contributed to the decline of many farm birds, but as Nicholas’s son-in-law Robert Gollan points out: “If we can’t farm profitably we wouldn’t be here and there would be no one to look after the wildlife.”