Devon Cream

Fly over Britain in a microlight or on a magic carpet and beneath you will be a huge green, difficult-to-solve puzzle. Shapes cut as though with a pastry knife with dark lines between them, lie in a pattern neither higgledepiggledee nor regular but something in between, and ranging in shade of green from olive to grass. A Millennium project to photograph the whole of the British Isles from the air has shown just how decisively agriculture has stamped its mark on the landscape. Every so often there are block of trees, or towns like unruly octopi stretching their beige-grey limbs along roads into the surrounding green, but mostly, overwhelmingly, there are fields and it is in these that our wildlife must live. Every decision we have made about our farming for the last six thousand years has impacted on any creature trying to find a home in the UK.

Throughout the 6000 years since agriculture emerged in Britain, lapwings and skylarks and corn buntings and stone curlews, a multitude of wild creatures, have adapted to live alongside humans, picking up the waste corn and dormant insects in winter stubble fields, nesting in hedgerows or among the tussocks of grass created by our cattle. During the 1990’s bird watchers and biologists started to notice that the birds were disappearing. Since 1966 the British Trust for Ornithology have organised an annual common bird census, which backed up the sense that something was not quite right, with hard data.

Colourful lines slope harshly downwards from left to right across the pages of the ‘State of the UK’s birds’. These graphs represent losses of entire generations of birds in many parts of Britain. Declines of 60-80% over a 15 year period are common. Its not been easy to figure out just what’s going on. Some of the changes we have induced to make growing food easier have an obvious effect. Remove a hedge (40% have been grubbed up over 50 years) which a yellow hammer is nesting on, and that bird ain’t got no home. Other effects have been very subtle and the RSPB has spent a lot of time and energy working them out. Why the birds were suffering has been the subject of several PhD theses, many scientific papers, and much lecture theatre debating. Thirty RSPB scientists work on farmland bird declines.

Bird’s eye view

Its February, its rained and blustered all winter. You’ve no house, no central heating, or sofa or Christmas, no electric light. Every one of the short, grey winter days you spend finding enough food, (one third of your body weight) to see you through the long darknesses. You fly over the fields looking down at acres and acres of green, but when you land you find nothing. The little dark green spears of wheat or ryegrass are steeped in sprays, efficiently managed, by inventive and hugely adaptive humans, the whole steely weight of science behind them. No other creatures can get a footing. With 76% of our country under farmland, there is hardly anywhere else to go. Stewardship

Like so many environmental problems, the elimination of birds from our countryside happened by accident. Nobody (except a few cranks) wanted them gone, it just became obvious that something we were doing was causing them problems. The RSPB, founded 100 years before by women keen not to see foreign birds made extinct to adorn their hats, was facing possibly the greatest challenge in its history. And it possessed the resources, the skills and the will to act. In less then ten years, a problem has been noticed, causes identified, solutions proposed, and working alongside the countryside commission, the Environment Agency, the Wildlife Trusts, and other organisations changes implemented, on the scale of entire landscapes. The RSPB has helped advise DEFRA (Department of Environment, Food, and Rural affairs), just what it would take to bring our birds back. A ‘countryside stewardship’ scheme was developed, which through a systems of government grants to 14,000 landowners totalling £500 million over 5 years, is putting thousands of acres back into wildlife friendly farming.

South Down Farm is on the edge of Britain, almost as far south in Devon as you can go. When a migrant birds comes in to this country, the birthplace of the RSPB, on its long voyage from Africa, it may well find itself on Colin and Vanessa Mills’ farm (owned by the National Trust), and there it will be welcome. Not only is Collin a keen bird watcher, but he also manages his farm under a Stewardship agreement and he feeds a lot of birds. Alongside their winter wheat and pigs, the Mill’s produce bird seed. The pretty seeds are multicoloured like little beads laid out on the trays. While Vanessa fills up the sacks to send out to customers, the children play in the barn. Outside, the winter is raging, but the fields from which this crop is taken are habitat.

On the cliff, most of the Mill’s 450 acres are spread out before you. In a valley to the sea, a stretch of Willow Carr, is fenced off. Inside lives the rare greater tussock sedge. Cirl buntings flit between scrub and grass beneath us and behind us on the cliff, sheep graze the rough grassland. Here Lasius niger, a species of black ant and silver studded blues butterflies live together in an ancient symbiotic relationship. Gorse sprinkles the landscape with thorns and yellow flowers. Along the edges of many fields are stewardship funded field margins created by the Mills. These are unsprayed, and uncropped 2 or 6 meter edges where wildlife can live. Barn owls hunt along them looking for small mammals living among the diversity of grasses and plants, spiders crawl out of them into crop and prey on aphids. The winter stubbles can clearly be seen, as can the winter wheat the latter darker green and brown. Winter stubbles, Bird heaven

A crucial change in arable production over the past 20 years has been the a shift from sowing wheat in the spring to sowing in the autumn. This new winter wheat meant that the crop was on the ground throughout the winter giving it a head start and an overall higher yield for the farmer, but for the birds there was a problem. Eight out of every ten small birds may die during the winter months from lack of food or exposure. Sowing in the spring, as happens with the bird seed crops, the stubble is left over winter. Winter stubble is rather unassuming, scrubby looking stuff, the weeds and sticky, strawy bits of the crop left in the ground after the harvester had been through. Through the noble process of science, it has emerged that stubbles are manna from heaven for all manner of birds. Arriving on a field of winter stubble our bird would have no trouble surviving the winter, relishing the feast on offer there, the fallen bits of seed, the leafy soil cover harbouring invertebrates when they are not frozen solid, the microhabitats, warm sheltered areas, where skylarks or snipe can rest and roost. This the kind of understanding the RSPB’s £2million research budget has helped provide. It is a strangely disconcerting, but this one simple change in farming, this virtually unnoticeable change to the landscape, has had overwhelming effects on so many different birds. One in particular is more in jeopardy than the others. Cirls and Pearls The RSPB has taken a particular interest in the Mill’s farm because it is home to several pairs of cirl buntings. With only 400 pairs of cirl buntings in Britain every one is a pearl. Where they used to spread out into This number is vast improvement on the 100 or so which existed in Britain when Cath Jeffs started her job. Cath Jeffs, RSPB cirl bunting officer and her predecessors have helped to establish 180 cirl bunting countryside stewardship agreements which form 700 hectares of weedy stubble; 280 miles of field margins, and miles of hedges. Cath has also set up an emergency feeding scheme, a way humans can give cirls a helping hand when the ground is frosty. Along his lane, Collin sprinkles the chaff from the wheat processing, a cost-free, thoughtful act which feeds flocks of birds, which bustle in the hedges. Cath is warm and positive about her work. A survey found that 94% of farmers are happy about their involvement, and one farmer went so far as to say ‘it saved out bacon’! The livestock farm

In Shropshire, Stephanie and Neil Dobson are becoming the new Peter and Phillipa Scott. Neil strides around in his wellies in January weather, his fields stretching out frozen and ghostly in all directions. The stewardship agreement has enabled him to lower the intensity of his farming, create walkways, bridleways, hides, a wildflower meadow and to make their farm wetter. This, according to Dave Buckingham, who gazed at grasslands for 2 years as RSPB researcher, is an excellent thing. Neil was very excited about the soggy bits he had made on his fields, so much so that in his efforts to show it off, he fell into the mud to the top of his wellies. The lower intensity grazing, and tussocky grass, and the wetness all encourage a range of plants and insects which gangly lapwing babes can be fed on when they emerge. Skylarks too can make their nests alongside the tussocks tucking themselves in for shelter from the weather.

Neil shows me his wetlands, 30 acres of it and says he would put his whole farm under if he could. The XXX area used to be very wet, but humans, overly-ingenious again have drained them with a system of very effective ditches. Now Neil intends to undertake a hydrological survey of the farm to find out where the water is so he can use it more effectively. As soon as things started to thaw, dripping from twig tips and grass tips and the ground underfoot was like sponge, the sky became alive with birds circling round looking down at a 20 acre wetland which did not exist five years earlier. Before the Dobsons, the RSPB, DEFRA got together and decided they liked birds enough to give it a go.

Neil farms livestock because he loves it. Amelia, his one time prize cow, was born with a defect, but she was rescued and nursed to health by the young Steph. Amelia ‘won everything she could win’ including the Royal show – interbreed championships’. Pictures of prize cows his grandfather raised adorn the walls of their 17th century house. Steph is extremely good at repairing damage to injured animals, and can boast she sewed a hen’s head back on after it was virtually ripped off by a fox. She tried to persuade me to take a cockerel home (but my neighbours might not like it if I had a cockerel). It is no wonder the Dobson’s are passionate about helping animals, but it is not just for love that they joined the Stewardship.

Under CAP Neil was paid per head of cattle: 2 and a half per hectare. Now under Countryside Stewardship, the stocking rate is 1.6, and he is compensated for the difference. He does not use fertiliser on the pasture, and when Neil first joined the scheme, his neighbours were very dubious. Seeing how it has worked, now 3 out of 5 of them want in. The scheme does not make up for boom years, so when everyone else is raking it in such as in the mid 1990’s when the price of grain boomed, Neil’s income simply remained stable. But in the trough years, which don’t need pointing out, Neil is not tearing his hair out, or worse. The Wildflower meadow

Ambling through France in my VW camper van one summer, I came across a wildflower meadow. So beautiful was it that I stayed for several days just listening to loudness of the insects, absorbing the colour. It counts as one of the brightest memories of my life. Wildflower meadows are extremely rare in Britain. While over half of Britain is grassland, 95% have been ‘improved’ (the term was coined in a commercial sense). The farmer aims for a thick sward of fast growing, usually single species rye grass which is heavily grazed. The other 170 or so native grasses don’t get a look in. Grasshoppers and other insects are reduced in numbers and so are the tree sparrows and yellowhammers which feed on them. Stewardship pays for the recreation of wildflower meadows and I have now seen several across Britain. A Professor Truman from Wolverhampton University got excited and helped Neil and Steph to create their 8 acre wildflower meadow. Hay was bought in from nearby Penkridge SSSI in July and scattered over a bare field. It is lightly grazed and no fertilisers are added. The results were according to Neil ‘amazing, ox eye daisies, ragged robin, yellow rattle, red clover, …’; another 8 acres are planned.

More hares, less headaches: A sense of positive contribution to the world, of enjoying looking after the land is another important benefit of stewardship schemes. Neil has stopped having high blood pressure, headaches and stress since joining the scheme. He says it’s a less competitive way of life which broadens his outlook. Collin enjoys the birds on his farm and says it’s the number of hares which give him most pleasure, because he has seen their numbers increase almost before his eyes. Sometimes if skylarks can’t find a place to put their nest among the vegetation, they nest on the tractor tracks. Along comes the farmer on his tractor and and crunch, the skylark’s eggs are no more. Collin says its quite easy to persuade farmers to simply hop out, put the nest on one side and then put it back after he’s been through with his machinery. A little bit of effort and a lot of feel-good factor.

The ground beneath our feet: Every square meter of soil every ditch, every hedgerow, every dry stone wall, every tree in our country has been influenced by humans. Now some of those decisions are being made with wildlife in mind which has to point to an evolution of the human spirit. A raised bank encompassing 40 acres of the Dobson’s farm, is evidence of a 2 and a half thousand year old human settlement. The people who lived here made tea by putting hot clay bricks into water. Stephanie shows me an ancient bead, which is so pretty and so delicate it looks like it might adorn a necklace in an exclusive jewellers now: Generations after generation of humans being clever, being innovative, all having their particular impact on the earth. The Dobsons, the Mills and the RSPB are helping to ensure we go down in history as having the foresight, the deliberate intent and the passion, to make space for the butterflies, the flowers, the wild grasses, and the birds.