NEWS – Farmland Birds Project – Interim Report (first year)

Project Profile: Foraging ranges and favoured food of four farmland bird species (Tree Sparrow, Linnet, Yellowhammer and Reed Bunting) that winter on Suffolk Farms

Introduction:

There has been much written about the declines in range and abundance of a host of farmland bird species since the early 1970s. Many species that were formerly abundant have become vulnerable to agricultural intensification and are now in steep decline. In an attempt to reverse these declines, Government-backed, voluntary schemes have introduced measures that would provide for the ‘Big 3’, i.e. nesting habitat, chick food and winter food for birds that favour farmland. Countryside Stewardship (CSS) was the forerunner of Entry Level, Organic Entry Level Stewardship and High Level Stewardship (ELS, OELS and HLS), which are the schemes available to farmers today.

In Britain at least, farmland is the single most important habitat for the four species listed below and, in recent winters, they have become increasingly reliant on seed-bearing crops. Therefore, the wild birdseed plot option, available as part of Environmental Stewardship, is becoming more and more important to the survival of wintering seed-eating species. Many farmers supplement this food source by supplying seed to fill the hungry gap in late winter and early spring. In an effort to gain a better understanding of the habits of farmland birds, Waveney Bird Club (WBC), in partnership with Suffolk Wildlife Trust (SWT), will lead a local study on 19 Suffolk farms focussing on the foraging ranges of four species: Tree Sparrow, Linnet, Yellowhammer and Reed Bunting. WBC will act as the lead organisation for the research work working under the umbrella of SWT’s farmland bird advisory work.

On completion of the research project WBC will seek funding to employ the BTO to professionally analyse the results. This might result in a paper for publication in a national journal.

Aims and objectives:

The aims and objectives of the project are to determine:

  • Foraging ranges of target species
  • Food preference between spring and autumn sown crops (Westhorpe only)
  • Flock sizes and species mix of birds using wild birdseed cover plots
  • Weight gain and/or weight loss throughout the winter
  • Supplementary feeding (tonnage and grain type) to bridge hungry gap
  • Record any net immigration to or emigration e.g. as a result of cold snaps as well as any large-scale exchanges of individuals between farmland and other habitats

Methodology:

  • Map areas of wild birdseed mix for each farm and determine area (ha) of each plot
  • Number/name each plot
  • Determine seed mix and dominant plants from that mix (which plants have done well that year?)
  • Set up net lanes within the cover plots and capture birds that are exploiting the food source between 1st December and 31st March
  • Note specific area where birds are caught (plot number, etc.)
  • Take full biometrics and weights of each bird and record all recaptures (even if caught that day), noting time, date, etc. (perhaps collect faecal samples?)
  • Estimate flock size and species range for each plot
  • Record other features on the farm that would encourage wintering seed-eating birds (e.g. overwinter stubbles)
  • Note: methodology may be further tweaked once we have received direction from BTO and a joint programme of work agreed.

Funding:

Funding to be sourced from various outlets with initial expenditure attributed to the WBC BAP fund, which is being administered by SWT (Action – Chris McIntyre/Patrick Barker). WBC will consider bids for the cost of rings from ringing teams outside the lead organisation’s umbrella. Funding for professional analytical input will be sourced jointly with BTO.

Steve Piotrowski
Project Officer – Waveney Bird Club
Farmland Advisor – Suffolk Wildlife Trust