Late agricultural operations and the risk to nesting birds

Lapwing and chicks about the size some may have been in the article

Lapwing and chicks about the size some may have been in the article

Yesterday I was involved in a discussion on Twitter about farmers rolling grass fields at this time of year. I have a bee in my bonnet about this and have already written on my blog about the subject (Reduce buzzards by 80% and feed sparrowhawks turnips – August 17 2013, and The bad news and the good news – November 17 2013).

The worst example I witnessed, several years ago now, were two (or maybe even three) fields in Glen Quaich, Perthshire, that were in part boggy with marsh grasses growing at one end. These fields were rolled at the beginning of May, either for a later crop of hay or silage. The rushy part of the field was also rolled, despite it being no good for either crop. Glen Quaich is noted for its high numbers of waders, particularly lapwing, oystercatcher, redshank, curlew and snipe. Skylark, mallard and partridge are other possible victims. Most of the eggs of these species would have been hatched or be on the verge of hatching and all would have been flattened.

RSPB and BTO have put out guidance to farmers regarding nesting birds and the Scottish Government, where the land is part of a funded agri-scheme, state, amongst other conditions, that there may be no harrowing or rolling of the land between 1 April and 31 July. For general agricultural work 1 April may be a shade early, but looking back many years to a time when lapwing eggs could be collected for eating, the cut-off date for taking them was 15 April. This was the date before which it was reckoned that many nests would be destroyed by harrowing or rolling in any case, though most would be safe after that. Do we now need something to this effect in legislation?

Looking at current legislation it is an offence under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 to intentionally or recklessly kill or injure a wild bird or to take or destroy an egg of any wild bird. There is no suggestion that the eggs in nests or any chicks in the above circumstances were killed or destroyed intentionally, but for a person who has farmed that land for a number of years and who must know of the volume of nesting birds in the area the act of rolling the field on such a late date may be held to be reckless.

There are conditions which allow an exemption under the Act. These are:

(a)       that the unlawful act was the incidental result of a lawful operation or other activity;

(b)       that the person who carried out the lawful operation or other activity—

(i)   took reasonable precautions for the purpose of avoiding carrying out the unlawful act; or

(ii)   did not foresee, and could not reasonably have foreseen, that the unlawful act would be an incidental result of the carrying out of the lawful operation or other activity; and

(c)        that the person who carried out the unlawful act took, immediately upon the consequence of that act becoming apparent to the person, such steps as were reasonably practicable in the circumstances to minimise the damage or disturbance to the wild bird, nest or, as the case may be, egg in relation to which the unlawful act was carried out.

I would doubt that any of these exemptions would apply.

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3 Responses to Late agricultural operations and the risk to nesting birds

  1. Dennis Ames says:

    Of course it is possible the farmer looked for nests and avoided them,It is a fact that some do and of course on wet boggy ground or in wet times in the uplands it may not be possible to get on the land with tractor and roller early in the year.
    Not saying that did happen but it is a possibility.Conservationists do not always understand the problems that farmers face.

    • Dennis, That’s possible, though from experience of harrowing and rolling nests are much harder to see in a couple of inches of grass and rushy tufts than on bare ground. I saw a field near me a couple of years ago where the farmer had avoided all the nests, which remained on small patches of plough despite the grain peeking through the ground all around them. Having been brought up on a farm and working on a farm after leaving school I well appreciate the problems and have shifted many nests over the years. If even half of the nests can be saved by a bit of thought and care then lapwings in particular might have a chance of recovering.

  2. bimbling says:

    “Conservationists do not always understand the problems that farmers face.”

    While Alan was writing with a countryman’s hat on, I doubt he’d call himself a conservationist. What he is explaining is the law and while that may be an inconvenience when for eg there may be a late spring it is, along with Councilor Gray’s comments about young people versus ospreys at T in the Park, a complete irrelevance.

    Lot of taxpayers money goes into farming and to farmers and we expect at the very least, the law to be observed otherwise, I for one want my money back.

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