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Meeting report – Lowland Farmland Birds: their ecology & conservation

26-18 August 1999, University of Southampton
by Bob Scott

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This was possibly the most successful BOU conference ever. Rather a sweeping statement, but with just over 200 attendees and a title as pertinent and important as Lowland Farmland Birds it is perhaps not surprising. All the presentations were excellent. Another of those sweeping statements, but one that I am certain would be supported by all delegates. It is very easy in a review such as this to over simplify by extracting points of note and out of context – but I am going to do this any way. Several quotations stick in the mind: “There is no bar on site” (Dudley); “We get there in the end, but there might be some delays on the way” (Morley); “A cut out Wheetabix packet” (Packham); “Linnets are production-line birds” (Wilson); “Lots more bloody Skylarks” (Young quoting Prescott); and “Only one person identified the warbler correctly” (Redman).

Age was a very encouraging feature of the weekend! The average age of delegates must have been the lowest for many years (if not ever). This in itself is no doubt a tremendous reflection of the current fieldwork, financial resources available and quite superb research being undertaken on farmland birds. Graham Wynne stressed that in the past the gut feeling that something was wrong lacked the scientific facts to back it up. Now, the advocacy and political pressure is lagging behind the facts. So many of the presentations clearly demonstrated this. We know what happened, we know why it happened and we know what needs to be done. The questions that now remain are how do we get it done? And have we the will to get it done?

After Chris Packham's hugely entertaining and thought-provoking talk on the Friday night, the serious business kicked off the following morning with two excellent overviews by Rob Fuller and Nick Sotherton (a self-confessed “entomologist in the lion's den”). These talks were timely reminders that mechanisms causing bird declines in the 1970s are probably different from those in the 90s. Agricultural changes have, of course, always taken place, but the rate of change has probably accelerated with more machines, less people, more fertilisers, less spring sowing and more mechanised silage production. The classic cycle of herbicides effecting the food for insects and insecticides effecting the food for birds was a theme that we came back to time after time. Two elements that perhaps (?) needed a little more attention were the increased use of molluscicides/fungicides and the current speed and efficiency of farming processes and actions.

Four case studies from Nicholas Aebischer illustrated just what could be done with concentrated management on range restricted species. Unfortunately, Grey Partridge Perdix perdix, Corncrake Crex crex, Cirl Bunting Emberiza cirlus and Stone-curlew Burhinus oedicnemus are unlikely ever to regain their former abundance, but their future seems assured in their current “reserve” areas. Whether this situation is sustainable can only be debated. It looks as if we will just have to manage these “small/isolated populations”. Only 50 years ago all four species would have been described as widespread farmland birds.

It has to be admitted that the conservation movement was slow to take on board the potential of organic farming. Dan Chamberlain told us that the 1% of farmland that is now organic is not just lacking in chemicals, but has many other beneficial features that result in a greater bird density and diversity. Barbara Young was clearly enthusiastic, wanting to raise this 1% to 10%, or even 15%. With set-aside at one time amounting to over 15% of farmland taken out of production, the potential for future benefits seemed high, but with set-aside likely to disappear, we moved on to look at grassland (the “Cinderella” of farmland when compared with arable) and pesticides. Andrew Wakeham-Dawson pointed out that the Birds of Conservation Concern Red List were, apart from Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa, all dry grassland species, and the Amber List species were mainly wintering birds relying on wet grassland. One was left wondering if the position was just a little more complicated than the current data suggested. Alistair Burn's presentation on pesticides looked like the start of something really big! More evidence is still needed for indirect effects of pesticides – yet we all know it is true! It did seem rather strange that we can have diagrams showing bird species declining, their food items declining as the result of pesticide use, and the effect on the bird population as only possible (or perhaps probable). Let us hope that the large scale MAFF funded study comes up with the goods.

Saturday afternoon (and some of Sunday) was dedicated to species: Skylark Alauda arvensis (the only common songbird to nest and feed in cereals); Song Thrush Turdus philomelos (poor breeding performance); Corn Bunting Miliaria calandra (where are the winter cattle?); Yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella (why so many until the late 1980s?); Linnet Carduelis cannabina (a non-territorial, semi-colonial, totally herbivorous farmland species); and Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio (the ultimate bird table).

The hour change on the clocks and the resulting lack of sleep appeared to have no effect on the Sunday morning, as everyone seemed to be there for the only “heavy” statistics of the weekend. A lively debate on the value of modelling and something about “log(Nt+1,c/Nt,i) = Rt+A* . . .” (I failed to copy the remainder of the equation). Interestingly, the conference managed to get through most of Sunday morning without mentioning Grey Partridge – a totemic species on the Saturday. A review of the situation in Europe and an insight into the UK Biodiversity Action Plans led us into the two closing sessions. These left us on a rather up-beat note, which was perhaps surprising in view of some of the depressing news we had heard over the weekend. Graham Wynne gave us his 12 points for immediate action and Barbara Young stressed how the government may just have some difficulty in wriggling off the hook that it is now on.

A great weekend. Well done to everyone involved in the organisation.

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