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Plight of the Uk Farmland Birds

Updated on August 4, 2015

Notes from a Lancashire Countryman.

The U.K. Bio -diversity plans are designed to help those species that are suffering declines in population numbers or distribution. They derive from the 1992 Earth Summit, when 152 nations signed up to the Bio-Diversity Convention. This committed the signatories to develop a strategy for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity.

The U.K. ratified the Convention in 1994 and later issued the U.K. ACTION PLAN. This was the first step along a very long road. In 1995 the Government set up a steering group which began to identify the species and habitat in need of immediate conservation. In order to ascertain which species and habitat were in need of immediate help. In my neck of the woods, the north west of England [ common with other regions] a full Bio-Diversity Audit was carried during the late 1990s to achieve it. The species were then categorised and added to one of three lists, which comprise of-----

THE RED LIST SPECIES--- the Priority Species -which have suffered losses of 50% or more since 1970 in population numbers or distribution.

THE AMBER LIST---those species that have suffered declines of between 25% or more in population/distribution since 1970.

THE GREEN LIST--- those that are conservation concern due to trend losses, of population /distribution.

Those that are unfortunate to be placed on the Red list-being Priority species are in need of immediate help to safeguard their future. thus, action plans have been formulated and are currently being implemented for each species {S.A.P's}. These plans may be aimed at individual species or grouped together for example Action Plan for Farmland Birds { see below} In this article I will endeavour to explain the complexities facing the birds of north west England that appear on the Plan. The species that occur on the plans list are --Corn Bunting, grey Partridge, Skylark, Yellow Wagtail, Tree Sparrow, Linnet, Reed Bunting, Yellow Hammer.

Corn Bunting---Milaria calandra-- decline nation wide is estimated at 89%. Locally this figure is estimated to be 54%. ----The Corn bunting is a bird easily missed when flocking with other seed eaters in autumn fir its plumage is all brown with darker streaks. Although the short, stout bill is a yellowish horn colour and the legs are yellowish. The tail is forked. It is a comparatively large bunting of a stocky or plump build with a complete lack of distinguishing features with no wing bars or white in the tail feathers. The main distinguishing feature, when in flight, is the way they tend to dangle their legs, which are conspicuous. No other small land bird flies with its legs dangling. The flight is direct or bounding. On the ground it hops or occasionally runs.It is a bird of open country especially arable land. In common with other buntings it shuns man. Another factor unusual in buntings is that the sexes are similar in appearance, however, the males are slightly larger than the females. They are

in fact more akin to the skylark in appearance than to buntings.

NEST AND EGGS--- the male attracts as many females as possible to his territory and will mate with each one that he entices. Should he have enticed more than one, he will leave the female to rear his offspring alone. The corn buntings nest is usually to be found well away from high cover, but well hidden in the herbage growing where it is placed, on the ground, often in cultivated ground this bird especially affecting such localities. The nest is an open, loosely put together affair, made of twigs, moss and hay, lined with finer materials, often lined with hair. The eggs are vary a great deal, but are essentially recognisable by retaining the spots and scrawls characteristic of buntings in general, while they are bigger than those laid by other members of the group. Their ground colour is white with a purplish or creamy tinge. The spots and streaks are of a dark chocolate colour. Four to five is the usual number and they are deposited late. This is one of our latest breeding birds not laying until May is half over. They need a constant supply of insects to feed chicks. Adults feed on the seeds of wild flowers particularly the seeds of arable weeds. Winter stubble is paramount to sustaining a viable population.

THE FARMLAND ACTION PLAN.--- the plan will be implemented by County plans throughout the country. for example the Lancashire S.A.P., the Cumbria S.A.P. etc,etc,. The aim of each and every one of them is to reverse the decline in farmland bird populations. Each S.A.P. will look at the status of the species both at national and local level. All the birds mentioned in detail within this article are Priority species for the reasons given. It is appropriate to mention that some of these birds will also be found in other habitat also. Conversely, some birds that are not mentioned may well be encountered on farmland, however, these species will not be strictly classed as farmland species, but may well benefit from the plan. For instance, the house sparrow feeds on winter stubble and farm yards outside the breeding season.

Why Is Farmland so Important ?

 To realise why this is so we have to look at the requirements of these species which the plan summarises as follows----A-winter seed food { not yellow wagtail } stubble, fodder crops, wild bird and game cover crops, some grassland swards. B- spring and summer insect food, spring sown crops, fodder crops, conservation headlands, field margins especially flora rich margins, meadows pastures, damp areas and ditches. C- NESTING SITES  -various crops, and grassland sward, hedgerow, grass margins and banks, hedgerow trees and scrub.

WHAT ARE THE FACTORS AFFECTING THE SPECIES ?.   It is well documented that intensive farming over the last few decades have had a detrimental affect on many species of wild life. That is not the fault of the farming community for they are doing the bidding of the Government which in turn is dictated too by European Policy Makers. nevertheless changes have occurredthat need to be addressed. One of the main changes that is certainly had a detrimental effect to seed-eating birds is the change from spring to autumn sown crops that has occur ed during that period. A few decades ago it was common practice to leave the stubble left in the wake of the combine harvester throughout the winter, thus allowing a source of food, such as arable weed seeds, for the birds. Today it is normal to plough stubble fields within days of being harvested, before being sown again before autumn has concluded. This autumn sown crop may well have grown between 15-20cm tall by spring, which is too tall for the skylark and corn bunting to nest.

Intensive use of pesticides will delete the insect populations on which all of the species rely upon to feed their chicks. Habitat has also suffered fragmentation with farms tending to concentrate more and more on a particular type of crop and the farms that produce on arable and grassland situations are a lot less numerous than they once were. Loss of ponds and wetland areas along with their associated insects have also been a component of the species decline. Farm yards are much cleaner in these hygiene conscious days which again denies the birds another food source.

After recognising the concerns the Government created schemes such as the Environmental Stewardship Scheme which as helped farmers to bare in mind conservation concerns for the birds on his land, thus creating favourable habitat. Since 2002, this has included habitat management to help all the bird species incorporated in this plan. At the beginning of farmland conservation there was a requirement of the farmers to provide a percentage of set-aside { left uncultivated } land which was thought to have been beneficial to many of the species. Alas, in 2008 this requirement ceased. Another source of food and nesting locations lost. How much of an impact this will have in the long term remains to be seen.

The aim of this plan is to contribute to halt the species decline and eventually { by 2015} reverse the decline. It also needs to maintain the levels that were recorded in the 2000 Bird Atlas and to keep them or if possible improve on them by the time the next Atlas is published in 2011.

HOW CAN THIS BE ACHIEVED ?------several feeding stations schemes have been set up across the county of Lancashire which will benefit seed eaters. Yet this can only be a short term solution which is hoped to sustain populations until a plan concerning land management can be established. Organisations such as F.W.A.G. farmers and wildlife groups, and the R.S.P.B. are implementing the plan. many other will contribute particularly local bird groups who will push for beneficial changes to occur.

Rest of the Suffering Species

GREY PARTRIDGE--Perdix perdix--- if ever a bird was most associated with farmland in the U.K. it would be this species. Because of its close association the species has suffered heavy declines in the last 30 years particularly at national level, Where declines in population figures of 88% have been estimated. However, in the north west of England we have been much more fortunate and although the decline based on limited data it is estimated that for the period 1994-2006 the loss occurred here was estimated at only 1%. This figure is being treated with caution by the leading conservation groups. Lancashire is regarded as a stronghold for the species in western Britain, Long may it remain so!.

A family group is known as a covey. A typical covey may comprise of two adult birds and up to eight young. The plumage of the bird is brown with darker markings, it has a rufous head and tail and bars on the flanks. The grey breast has a chestnut horseshoe mark on all adult males and many hens. The bill is of a greenish- horn colour. The legs are grey. They also have a red patch of skin behind the eye. They possess a typical " whirring" flight associated with game birds, alternating with periods of gliding on down-curved wings. It walks and runs. This species relies on farmland, both grass and arable, with some cover such as hedgerows, bushes or rough balks or ditches.

NEST AND EGGS--- Like its close relative the pheasant this partridge lays on the ground in thick herbage, or in a hedge bottom, in the scantiest of nests. The eggs are very similar in appearance to those of the pheasant, but naturally smaller. They have a tendency to vary in colour from olive to blue and even nearly white. They are generally laid in May, around 10 eggs are the norm, but much larger clutches are not unusual. Unlike the male pheasant, the male partridge defends his brood with great courage.

SKYLARK---Alauda arvensis--From somewhere high in the sky the noted of the skylark's song cascade down like a fine silvery rain. Alas in many regions of the U.K. their song is heard no more. At national level their population number has fallen by an estimated 53%. Trends in the north west of England between 1994-2006 are estimated at a 14% decline. The plumage of this species is brown , streaked darker and paler beneath. It bears a notable crest at times. There are prominent white feathers in the tail. The bill is thin and horn-coloured { this contrasts with the stout,short bills of many farm land species} The legs are yellowish brown. The flight is rather undulating. It is the only bird that sings ascending almost vertically, while hovering in the air, and again as it descends. On the ground they walk.

NEST AND EGGS-- The nest is placed out in the open, away from other cover than what is provided by corn crops, and other short herbage. It is open and loosely built of hay, and lined with fine grass and roots. The eggs vary in number from 3-5 and are speckled with drab grey on a more or less white background, the latter is almost inconspicuous on account of the thickness of the spotting. This generally pretty evenly distributed, but sometimes the spots tend to form a ring around the large end, most conspicuous in eggs that are lightly marked. Eggs in which the spotting is reddish-brown in colour that is intermixed with grey, are at times found , but they are rare. Abnormally shaped eggs, rounder or more peg top shaped than the typical form are, however, not uncommon. The first eggs may be found in April. Autumn grown crops may well have grown to tall the suit the birds nesting requirements.

TREE SPARROW-- Passer montanus-- This countryside cousin of the house sparrow has suffered the largest decline of all the species that occur within the plan, with an estimated decline in population numbers of 93% nationwide. In Lancashire, the decline is estimated to be greater still possibly as much as 99% but this needs to be confirmed.

The plumage of the species is chestnut with darker streaks above { the crown is uniform chestnut } , pale greyish or buffish white below. They have a bib of black, with black on the cheeks is a slight double wing-bar. The tail is square unlike the cleft tails of the buntings and finches. Both sexes resemble the male house sparrow but may be told from that bird by the chestnut crown, smaller black bib, and the black patches on the cheek. This species relies heavily on farmland especially during the winter where it feeds on stubble and forages in the farm yards.

NEST AND EGGS---this species nests in tree holes , old crow's nest and similar situations. The nest is a slovenly affair, made of grass, straw etc. Lined with feathers and so forth. The eggs have a white background but the dark brown markings can however, vary in amount. It is not unusual for one egg in the clutch to be very light. They are usually laid in April or May.

BROWN LINNET--Carduelis cannabina- This endearing bird which has a very pleasing twittering chorus has suffered declines of 53% at national level. Fortunately in the period 1994-2006 the decline in the north west of England was estimated at only 1%. the decline has been more profound on farmland than any other habitat. The plumage of this species is of a brownish colour streaked darker. However, the breeding male has a crimson forehead and breast., greyish head and chestnut back. The tail is cleft. It has a stout ,dark brown bill. the legs are flesh-brown in colour. The flight of this bird is bounding. Hops. A prominent whitish wing - bar shows both at rest and in flight. During the winter they flock with other seed eaters.

NEST AND EGGS---The linnet places its nest in hedges and bushes, especially gorse bushes, which are usually abundant in the type of open land it particularly prefers. It will also nest in so low-growing a plant as heather. being a sociable bird , it is not uncommon for nests to be in close proximity to each other in colonies where accommodation is suitable. The nest itself is of the ordinary cup-shape, made of twigs , moss and grass outside, lined with wool, hair and down from plants. the eggs are usually 6 but 4 may be found. They are bluish-green with purplish markings, the spots etc, vary very much in intensity. They may first be located during April. The linnet also has an individual S.A.P. because of the variety of habitat during the breeding season.

REED BUNTING---Emberiza schoeniclus-- As it name suggest this bird breeds in reed beds in marshy places, rushy fields near rivers and ponds etc. however, in winter it relies on stubble and other crop fields favoured by seed eaters. the plumage is brown streaked darker. white outer feathers in cleft of its tail. the male in summer has a black head and throat and white collar, but these markings are somewhat obscured in the winter months. The adult female has a brown head with a buff coloured throat and buff lines above and below the eye.The legs and its stout bill are dark brown.

NEST AND EGGS----The reed bunting although a waterside bird seldom builds a nest among reeds, but in the same locality selected by other buntings. In herbage on the ground, or a little way up in a bush. The nest is the usual bunting type, rather roughly made of grass and weeds, but neatly lined with hair, fine grass and reed flowers. both sexes take part in the building and feign disablement to distract attention away from the locality. The eggs number 4-6, and are of a pale brown colour blotched and scrawled with black after the usual bunting pattern, but coarsely, and also spotted and streaked with lilac. They start to lat their eggs in April.

The bird relies on stubble and other farmland localities favoured by seed eaters during winter months.

YELLOWHAMMER--Emberiza citrinella. Indeed, this is a handsome bunting and used to be one of the most familiar in arable countryside. However, at nation level they are showing a dramatic decline of 54% occurring between 197o and 2005. In the north west of England between 1994 and 2006 the decline was estimated at 19%.

The plumage of the adult male is predominantly yellow with chestnut upper parts streaked darker. The female is of a much browner colour. They have white feathers in the forked tail. The bill is is stout, greyish -horn coloured. The legs are a pale brown flesh colour.

NEST AND EGGS -- the nest is open, substantially made , of hay, roots and moss, with a neat lining of hair. The nest is usually placed on the ground at the foot of a bush or hedge, although the bird itself likes to perch high.; a grassy bank is also a favourite site, and in some cases it may be built in a bush or small tree. The eggs number 4-5 and are characteristically scrawled with dark lines, so like writing that the bird acquired the country title of scribbling lark. eggs may be found from mid April. This species is a  typical hedgerow bird but it may also be encountered on bushy heaths and commons but like all buntings tend to shun human settlements with the exception of farm yards and stubble, both of which are important sources of winter food.

YELLOW WAGTAIL--Miliaria calandra-- This is also a handsome, slim looking bird which has become a source of conservation concern in the last two decades, with estimated declines at national level of 65%, while in the north west of England the decline between 1994-2006 is estimated at only 2%. The latter figure is estimated through limited data and must, therefore be treated with caution, also it needs to be remembered that the species in the north west of England has never been numerous. There are known to be several races. However, all forms are greenish-brown above and yellow below. The races differ only in head colour. The most familiar being, the top of the head and ear coverts are greenish-yellow, and the eye stripe, chin, throat and sides of the neck are brilliant yellow. The bill is short and thin.

NEST AND EGGS--The yellow wagtail nests on the ground, usually on marshy ground, but not necessarily near water. The nest is very hard to locate being well concealed in the herbage. The nest is of an open shape and loose construction, the materials being hay, moss etc, with a lining of hair and feathers.. The eggs are freckled buff, being thickly speckled with pale brown on a creamy back ground, with at times a slender scrawled streak or two of black. The clutch is normally consists of 5 eggs, which are seldom found before May.

The yellow wagtail breeds in two distinct types of country, most often in damp river valleys, water meadows and sewerage farms. But , they also breed on arable land under crops. They seem to be fond of feeding among cattle.

THE FUTURE of all these species may well depend on how successful the Farmland Birds Plan becomes. With the cooperation of the farming community, with financial incentives to do so, along with the endeavour of conservation bodies, it should go along way to achieving the aims set out in the plan. I wish them every success.

A further thought on the subject. Were it not for the tireless and tenacious work of bird groups and individuals taking on the labourious task of doing bird counts and ringing of young birds all these species and many others may well have been lossed to us before we even realised it.

Top. Yellowhammer. Middle Corn bunting. Bottom Corncrake



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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      C.L.S thank you so much for your kind comment. much appreciated.

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      Very nice pictures and lots of information.Your articles are great!


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