What farmers are doing for wildlife

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If you see cows walking along the edge of a dyke look closely and you may see yellow wagtails following them.

The bird – down in numbers by 71 per cent since 1970 – is particularly interested in the insects that live in cow poo.

Judith Jacobs talks to a group of farm visitors. Photo: rspb-images.com

Judith Jacobs talks to a group of farm visitors. Photo: rspb-images.com

The reasons the yellow wagtail is in decline are varied, but modern farming methods have not helped.

They are not alone: the tree sparrow, corn bunting, grey partridge, turtle dove and many other once commonly seen farmland birds are all in decline.

However, some farmers are trying to halt that trend, such as Andrew and Judith Jacobs, who farm land between Crowland and Deeping St James.

Andrew and Judith run Moor Farm, a mixed farm, with cattle and sheep as well as wheat, sugar beet, barley, oil seed rape and mustard crops.

They are part of the RSPB’s Thorney Farmland Bird Friendly Zone, which is essentially giving nature a home.

“People used to have birds all over their cut wheat and when I was a boy grain stores used to be filled with sparrows,” says Andrew. “Now, through hygiene, we are required to shut birds out of sheds that have crops in.”

The RSPB’s Jane Andrews-Gauvain says: “Barn owls used to roost in grain sheds and that’s another bird made homeless. Mixed farming is better because that still has open shed for barn owls.”

In fact, barn owls are in good health on Andrew and Judith’s farm, as are tawny, little and short eared owls, as a result of steps that have been taken to create habitats for them.

Currently, about ten per cent of the land is used for wildlife conservation as opposed to farming. There are pollen and nectar areas providing wild bird food; grass margins and field corners left for insects; hedgerows have been planted around the farm; and owl boxes put up.

Andrew and Judith’s is one of 17 farms in the Thorney Farmland Bird Friendly Zone and Jane Andrews-Gauvain explains: “It’s really important to have the farms connected and we are looking to connect up habitats where we can.

“If there is a population that is isolated and there is a lack of food, they can’t move out of that area so it is essential to have these corridors to move them to an area which might be more beneficial. Birds can move more than other animals, but even so because of a national lack of hedgerows there was a noticeable number of species starting to drop.”

There are financial benefits to setting aside land for conservation, and Andrew admits that was the motive when he began ten years ago. However, now he says: “I get paid to put these things in. I am not going to claim I did them voluntarily. But, having gone into it, I am now involved a bit more ethically.”