Generally the good news is followed by the bad news, but I’ll be different.
A report in the ’Courier’ of 15 November revealed that Scottish Natural Heritage figures show on-shore breeding bird numbers up by 12% between 1994 and 2012. This is broken down as woodland birds, which are up by 56%, farmland birds, which are up by 10%, and upland birds, which are down by 18%. The reasons for the fluctuations are not clear, though it was reported that improved weather conditions during the 2011 breeding season may have helped birds recover from harsher winters in the previous two years.
My 12 month wildlife survey on an upland Highland Perthshire estate, which began in July 2011, certainly showed that many birds were starting from a pretty low baseline. Most notable were curlew, kestrel, short-eared owl and hen harrier, of which I saw no breeding pairs at all. I have not been back on the estate for sufficient days this year to make a comparison. I did notice, however, that pairs of buzzards seemed lower this spring than in the spring of 2012 though I’ve no idea why.
I was most interested in the farmland bird figures. In my youth fields were full of nesting lapwings, curlew, grey partridge and skylark. Numbers of these birds then fell dramatically during the late 1960s and early 1970s. My suspicions are the changes in farming practices. Increased use of pesticides kills off invertebrate food for all of these species. A reduction in fields of turnips, lasting much of the winter and with plenty of weeds has changed to manicured turnip fields covered with fleece. Ploughing immediately after harvest time to sow winter cereal crops has left fields barren of suitable bird food. The rolling of young grass fields during late April – which is very late in the season – in preparation for a hay or silage crop means that eggs and chicks of ground nesting birds are flattened. Increased use of peas as a crop means that fields that are left in a ploughed state until ready for the pea crop attract the lapwings and oystercatchers that have already lost eggs in other fields. However the fact that a pea crop is one of the last to be sown results in these nests also being destroyed. Lastly, the more recent set aside seemed a saviour, but I was always disappointed to see how many of these fields were sprayed with weedkiller, leaving a yellow desert devoid of insects.
We can hardly expect farmers not to sow crops, but with the 10% increase in farmland birds it seems that there has been some change in farming practices and more eco-friendly farmers. It is great to see that some farmers now leave one or two field edges uncultivated, and also some rough areas that are suitable for nesting birds. These in many cases are obviously providing the combination of insect food and nesting habitat and may now be starting to tip the balance in favour of some of the farmland birds returning. So bad news tempered with some good news.