In the second instalment of our Directors’ blog, Nicky Penford takes a look at the many reasons our waders are struggling and asks how we can avoid making similar mistakes in the future.
Like many, lockdown has prompted me to re-explore my local area, and the purchase of an electric bike has widened my explorations and enabled me to revisit some of the farms where I worked as an adviser with the ‘Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group’ from 1992 for 15 years. Cycling past farms in the Cairngorm straths and the arable and beef areas of Aberdeenshire, I am struck by the changes that have occurred over the last 28 years, causing me to wonder how future changes in these uncertain times will influence the local landscape, and the land use and wildlife it supports.
One of the most noticeable changes is the loss of lapwings and other farmland waders. These iconic birds were a delightful feature of my farm visits in the 90s and much of my advice to farmers was aimed at managing and creating habitats for them: encouraging cattle grazing after the birds had nested to stop rushes becoming too dense, and creating wader scrapes and wetlands. Cycling around now I notice that the fields are empty, and large silage fields are green birdless deserts. The decline of waders is complex and multi-factorial and I caught the tail end of a period when they were abundant.
Old farmers used to proudly tell me about flocks of peezies, (the local word for lapwing), and how they would shift the peezies’ nests when they were harrowing with their open-cabbed Fergie tractors, then put the nest carefully back behind them. Now, contractors are in heated tractor cabs undertaking work at great speed and probably don’t notice any remaining lapwing nests that may become casualties of rolling. But these birds may be the last remnants of a changing bird population, with waders a casualty of changes to the anthropogenic habitats they depended on, and which enabled them to reach such high numbers in the first half of the 20th century. They were a feature of the book Sunset Song, set in the farmland of the Mearns area of Aberdeenshire around the time of the first world war. Now the Mearns are intensively managed arable plains, dotted with wind turbines and devoid of lapwings.
Lapwings have declined by 56% in Scotland over the 23 years up to 2018.
The mosaic of farmland habitats, with low density grazing on unimproved wet pastures, late-cut hay and turnip fields provided an ideal habit for waders. Coupled with zero tolerance for any predators it was a nirvana for wading birds – curlew, redshank, oystercatcher and snipe were abundant. Now only the more adaptable oystercatcher is regularly seen, although even this species has suffered a 39% decline over the past 23 years.
But whilst waders’ numbers have drastically declined, in some places I am seeing other birds replace them, representing the shift to trees and woodlands. One lowland farm where I designed agri- environment schemes (accessing grant aid for planting hedges, creating ponds, wetlands and other habitats) used to have 11 pairs of lapwing in the 90s, now there are none. However, it does have a very healthy population of yellowhammers and many other birds typical of the new landscape of hedges and young woodlands, such as willow warblers. Yellowhammers are Red-listed birds, ones that have shown major declines in recent years, so to have such a healthy, expanding population benefiting from the new habitats on the farm is a different kind of success.
The farmer blames the buzzards for the loss of lapwings, as many farmers do; they are an easy and very visible scapegoat. But the farm had high lapwing numbers as a legacy from the days when it, along with most others in the area was a mixed farming operation, with cattle providing organic manure that boosted soil invertebrates as part of the rotation. The farm, like many others in lowland Aberdeenshire, converted to wholly arable in the mid-90s, and the soil has had no farm yard manure as organic matter since then.
The farmer has noticed that many fewer birds are following the plough as the soil is becoming lifeless, with very little for the once thriving lapwing population to feed on. Even where cattle are still present on farms, the use of Ivermectins as wormers can make the cattle dung toxic for invertebrates, depriving lapwings of a key food resource under cow pats.
The farmer has created an award-winning farm, with new woodlands linked via thick hedges, but this too may have contributed to the decline of lapwings as they are open country birds, preferring to nest in the middle of fields with clear views to watch for predators. Indeed, research has shown that waders live in a ‘Landscape of fear’ – a term more familiar to us from the impact of wolves on deer in Yellowstone National Park, which caused a behavioural shift in the deer, compelling the herbivores to move to higher ground and allowing lowland, riparian woodland to regenerate.
For waders the perceived risk of nest predation causes birds to avoid forests, with research showing an exclusion zone of up to 1km from the forest edge due to depredation of nests by predators such as foxes.
Compared to many other countries, Britain also has an abundance of generalist meso-predators such as foxes and crows. This is due to many factors, but one is that in Europe apex-predators such as lynx keep fox numbers down via intra-guild predation – lynx just don’t like having foxes around – and this role has been highlighted as one of the many reasons why lynx reintroduction could bring ecosystem benefits. In Scandinavia, waders show this landscape of fear behaviour less and nest in more wooded landscapes, as there are many fewer meso-predators compared to Britain.
Research has also shown that high predator numbers in Britain are linked to the game rearing industry. With 43 million pheasants released every year and only a third of these shot there is a surplus of this food resource for generalist species like foxes, badgers and crows. The familiar sight of the carnage of pheasants on roads is evidence of the quantity of these easy pickings, which subsidise our unusually high populations of predators.
From my experience of seeing shifts in bird populations on farms, the government’s push for forest expansion conjures up concerns for waders, coupled with excitement at the possibility of new woodlands and all the eco-system service benefits they could provide (though with the big caveat that they need to be the right type of well-designed, well managed woodland, in the right place).
The election campaigns by all our political parties exemplify the wishes of many to expand forest cover, in part to meet our climate change objectives. Scotland, in particular, is ideally suited to have more forests, but where is the best place for all this new planting to occur?
Curlews are at particular risk from new planting. They have declined by 61% in Scotland and as Scotland supports 15% of the global population they are now have to be a top priority for conservation, to stop them following the same fate as in Ireland , where the species has suffered a 99% loss. Unfortunately, curlews occupy the rough grassland moorland edge habitats that are being targeted for forestry. With the loss of waders in the lowlands these upland fringe habitats are a critical last refuge.
The drive for more forests is largely for commercial Sitka spruce plantations, and whilst they are the most productive forests and as such sequester a lot of CO2 during their lifetime, they often offer little for wildlife and the landscape, particularly with the continuation of the clear-fell rotation system of harvesting and restocking. Attempts to improve their appearance by token planting of broadleaves around the edge often fail as these native trees are a magnet for deer, and the burgeoning red and roe deer populations here in Aberdeenshire (and throughout the Highlands) are ravaging the woods, leaving the broadleaves as Bonsai trees that struggle to emerge from their tattered plastic tree tubes.
Broadleaved woodlands are not always a panacea either, as many are poorly designed. I live on a farm where the steeper ground was planted with an uninspiring mix of sycamore and beech, and the serried rows cast a dense shade. There is no structure or understory and the wood supports hardly any more wildlife than the adjacent fields. In contrast, I recently visited a woodland I worked on 15 years ago where the farmer wanted to provide a wooded ‘walking route’ from the village to a hilltop castle by taking a strip of land out of the edges of his fields and following the lines of old shelter belts. The use of shrubs was maximised to provide a graded edge and included a wide range of native species. The resulting woodland is now full of birds – blackcap, yellowhammer, willow warbler, whitethroat, linnet, song thrush and stock dove – with swallows hawking for insects along the densely suckering blackthorn thickets. The woodland is also well used by local people, particularly at the moment as part of their daily lockdown walk. The birds are surely providing solace locals in these troubled times.
The future balance of land use is very uncertain. Brexit will remove the guaranteed ring-fenced funding for agriculture from the EU whilst post-COVID austerity will mean that farmers have to compete for limited public funding against all the other claims on our cash-strapped government purse. Upland livestock farming cannot survive without subsidies so some of these upland fringe farms may be the first casualties, with forestry the likely replacement land use. Many farmers prefer not to plant woodland on their land. I now teach agriculture students, some of them the sons and daughters of the farmers I worked with in the 1990s. They are passionate about big tractors and livestock but most have no interest in forestry, maintaining the cultural barriers to woodland establishment on farms. This is a dichotomous view of farming and forestry as being competing land uses, unlike farms in the rest of Europe where woodland is an integral part of the farm business. More attractive, integrated subsidy systems based on payments for public goods are needed to encourage more woodland creation on farms, but from the farmer’s perspective the loss of a regular annual income from sales of crops and livestock is a major economic and psychological barrier.
My excursions into the local landscape have not provided easy answers to complex land-use issues but there has to be a better way of saving the heritage of curlews and other wildlife whilst enabling appropriate forestry to take place. The rapid drive for commercial forestry should not make the same mistakes as farming did, with intensification leading to a dramatic loss of wildlife and an impoverishment of the landscape. Replacing farmland with Sitka spruce benefits the investors that are driving it (and obviously produces valuable timber and other climate change benefits), but should curlews and other wildlife pay the price?
Careful consideration and tighter guidelines are needed in the rush to plant to ensure waders are left with enough suitable habitat, perhaps with wetland creation integrated into climate change mitigation measures for flood alleviation.
Where woodlands are created, they should be designed so that yellowhammers and the associated assemblages of woodland birds become new features of the landscape for future cyclists to enjoy. But their creation should not come at the expense of the old features of our landscape, the waders struggling to adapt to our changing farmland practices and the intensification born out of ever greater pressures on our land.