Making Space for Nature on the Marlborough Downs
Marlborough Downs farmland bird project
Over the last 50 years, our farmland bird populations have declined dramatically, with some species experiencing a reduction in numbers or distribution of over 50%. These declines have been attributed to a number of factors, including:
Habitat loss - during the period between the mid 1970's and the end of the 1980's farming intensified resulting in a loss of unproductive habitat such as hedges, rough grassland, scrub, and wet meadows.
Lack of food - a shift to mainly autumn-sown crops and increased efficiency due to more widespread use of pesticides, more secure grain storage, and modern harvesting machinery leaving less spilled grain meant there was less food around for birds.
Increased predation - particularly by corvids - mainly crows and magpies - but also birds of prey, squirrels, badgers, foxes, weasels and stoats, all of which were controlled to some extent in the countryside up until WW2.
Since the 1990's when the first farm Stewardship schemes were introduced, farmers have been far more aware of how their day-to-day activities impact upon the wildlife around them, but despite decades of such schemes farmland bird numbers continue to decline. We wanted to see if we could reverse that trend on the Marlborough Downs and so picked two flagship species - tree sparrow and corn bunting - to focus on. These birds have very different habits and we felt that if we could improve their numbers and distribution it would be an indication of move in the right direction for lots of other farmland bird species too.
Working closely with Matt Prior of Wiltshire Ornithological Sociaty (WOS) we've designed a comprehensive farmland bird support package for the Marlborough Downs.
In the UK as a whole tree sparrow numbers declined by 94% between 1970 and 2001, and this characteristic farmland bird disappeared entirely from many areas in Scotland, Wales and south-west England. However, there have always been well-established colonies on the Marlborough Downs and we'd like to keep it that way! Working with WOS, not only are we providing year round food but also new homes for this, one of our flagship species. And it's working - tree sparrows have now moved north of Barbury Castle for the first time in years.
Winter feeding programme
Every winter across the Downs a hardy gang of farmers and volunteers distributes literally tonnes of bird food - grain such as wheat and barley donated by farms, supplemented by specially purchased millet and high energy commercial mixes. Some is spread on the ground, into stubbles, bird mix crops or hedge bottoms, and some used to fill giant bird feeders scattered across the area. The results have been dramatic, with thriving populations of farmland birds, many now increasing their range as well a numbers.
Grow your own bird seed!
All over the Downs, farmers are planting special crops designed to provide food for wild birds over winter. Plants like millet, linseed, triticale, kale and quinoa are grown and then left unharvested so the seed-laden plots become the equivalent of enormous bird tables, the size of football pitches - and bigger! We're also experimenting with growing and harvesting millet for our farmers and other volunteers to fill up their feeders. This means we can fund other activities with the money we save by not having to buy commercial seed.
It's one thing to provide habitat and year-round food for our farmland birds, but without some protection from predators such as crows, magpies, jackdaws, foxes and rats, many of our ground nesting species still struggle to breed successfully. We're working with our colleagues at GWCT to learn about legal and humane ways in which we might protect eggs and chicks from both avian and mammalian predators. We can already report lapwing and stone curlews have fledged more chicks where their nesting and foraging areas are protected by electric fencing.