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Meeting report – Lowland Farmland Birds II: the road to recovery

The BOU's 2004 Annual Conference
University of Leicester, 26 - 28 March 2004
Dan E. Chamberlain

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In 1999, the British Ornithologists’ Union hosted a major conference The Ecology & Conservation of Lowland Farmland Birds. The focus of this conference was on determining the likely drivers of these population declines either through autecological field studies or through analysis of large-scale survey data (Aebischer et al . 2000). It was clear that a suite factors, all under the general term 'agricultural intensification’ were responsible and that the main drivers of declines often differed between species. Five years ago a great deal of information was already available about the causes of population declines, particularly for species associated with arable habitats. A range of conservation initiatives were being developed to address these and there was already evidence of clear benefits to targeted agricultural practices for specific species. Research by the RSPB into the nationally endangered Stone-curlew Burhinus oedicnemus, Corn Crake Crex crex and Cirl Bunting Emberiza cirlus had all shown encouraging population increases.

Five years on, the BOU hosted another major conference - 'Lowland Farmland Birds: The Road to Recovery’ which provided a chance to assess how much progress had been made since the 1999 conference. In particular, what actions could be adopted at the political and practical level and how could they be trialled and their success assessed?

Prof. Ian Newton set the scene for the weekend by describing the declines in farmland birds as 'one of the major conservation problems of our age’ (Newton 2004) and over the last 15-20 years the British ornithological research community has put a great deal of effort into addressing this problem. These declines have been large and widespread. They have included now rare species that have undergone sustained post-war declines (Corn Crake, Stone-curlew, Cirl Bunting), but perhaps more worryingly, the BTO’s large-scale survey data and in particular the Common Birds Census have shown that common species have also declined in population, sometimes quite severely. For example, since 1970 there have been declines of over 80% in Tree Sparrow Passer montanus , Grey Partridge Perdix perdix , Corn Bunting Miliaria calandra , Turtle Dove Streptopelia turtur and over 50% in Sky Lark Alauda arvensis and Linnet Carduelis cannabina (Siriwardena et al . 1998).

The research carried out in the 1990s clearly had an impact at the highest levels. Most importantly, the government adopted 'The Wild Bird Indicator’ (Gregory et al . 2004) as one of 15 headline indicators of the quality of life. A subset of these species forms the Farmland Bird Index and in 2000, Defra adopted a Public Service Agreement (PSA) target 'to care for our living heritage and preserve natural diversity by reversing the long-term decline in the number of farmland birds in England by 2020, as measured annually against underlying trends’. Changes in farming policy and in particular adoption of targeted agri-environment schemes should help to achieve the target of reversal of the index’s downward trend by 2020.

Clearly in the past, some agri-environment schemes have been applied without adequate research into their effectiveness (Kleijn & Sutherland 2003). Arable Stewardship, one of the flagship agri-environment schemes in England , was recently piloted in East Anglia and the West Midlands , and research was carried out to assess the effectiveness of the various options in increasing the value of farmland to birds. Several options designed for target groups appear to be working, at the field scale but farm-level benefits were only evident in one region, the West Midlands , suggesting that landscape context may be an important issue (Bradbury et al . 2004). In addition to Arable Stewardship, a range of other novel management techniques are being trialled to assess their impact on birds (and other taxa) such as undrilled patches in cereal fields (Morris et al . 2004) and conservation tillage (Cunningham et al . 2004), both of which are showing promising results. If these schemes are to be of wider benefit, there must be continued monitoring and an ability to modify prescriptions where they are not delivering their targets.

Whilst we are in a position now to make specific recommendations for farm management to target specific species or groups in arable farmland, the same cannot be said for pastoral farmland where the volume of research and the range of novel management techniques tested has been far lower. This is in spite of the fact that many of the most severe losses of farmland birds have been in pastoral-dominated regions (Gibbons et al . 1993). There is currently a reasonable understanding of invertebrate ecology in pastoral farmland (MacCracken et al . 2004) and research is now focussing on how sward management affects the availability of key prey species to birds (Atkinson et al . 2004, Devereux et al. 2004). However, it remains unclear how best to manage pastoral habitats for declining bird species. There exists a limited suite of agri-environment options on lowland grassland and the evidence that currently exists suggests that these are not having positive effects on birds (Buckingham et al . 2004). There is a pressing need for further research into novel grassland management techniques that benefit birds and that can be incorporated in agri-environment schemes.

How far have we travelled?
Since the first BOU farmland birds conference, there have been some encouraging signs. Rarer species continue to increase thanks to targeted schemes. There is also some evidence that certain species have started to increase, or at least that population declines have slowed and trends stabilised. Consequently, there has been a recent levelling of the Wild Bird Indicator for farmland (Gregory et al . 2004). More widespread species have shown generally positive responses to agri-environment schemes in arable farmland, at least in terms of habitat preferences at a local scale, suggesting that research carried out around the time of the first conference correctly identified habitat requirements. These factors are a cause for cautious optimism, but there are still areas that are cause for concern. We have travelled a fair way on the road to recovery, but there is still some way to go.

The 2004 BOU conference gave a clear indication of the current situation of farmland birds, but also highlighted some pressing research areas. These include: continued monitoring of effects of agri-environment schemes and, in particular an assessment of the scale at which agri-environment schemes need to be applied to make a difference; more research into pastoral systems and novel management techniques there; and, further research into the Farmland bird Index as an indicator of wider (not just avian) diversity. We must also be patient as changes in farming practice may not have apparent impacts on bird populations for a number of years. Arable Stewardship, for example, has not yet had the hoped for impact despite our now extensive knowledge of the habitat requirements of farmland birds that heavily influenced the scheme’s design. In another five years we will be in a position to assess whether implementations put in place following intensive research will have the desired effects on farmland bird populations.

A major conference such as this does not just happen by accident. The BOU are to be congratulated for providing the British ornithological community with the platform to address key ornithological and conservation issues. The conference programme team, Nicholas Aebischer, Richard Brand-Hardy, Andy Evans, Phil Grice and headed by Juliet Vickery, are to be congratulated for delivering a quality and stimulating programme. The speakers, and those presenting the many posters, are to be thanked for sharing their work with the 175-strong conference delegation. Steve Dudley (BOU) is responsible for running BOU conferences and ensured that things happened when they should have happened. Juliet Vickery also spearheaded the conference programme team in editing the papers from the conference which appear as a supplement to this volume (146) of Ibis - seven months from presentation to publication is a fantastic achievement. I am also very grateful to Juliet for her comments on early drafts of this item.

Citation: Chamberlain, D. Ibis 146: 704-706

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