The Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) has collaborated on new research which sought to address the decline in farmland birds across agricultural landscapes by investigating the provision of plant and invertebrate resources such as beetles.

Flowers in a fieldDr Ben Woodcock, an Ecological Entomologist at CEH, joined scientists from the University of Worcester and University of Reading to study how different forms of buffer strip management can benefit the survival of farmland birds including yellowhammers, goldfinches and whitethroats.

The research, published in Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, investigated the provision of plant and invertebrate resources for farmland birds in buffer strips that were established with three different seed mixes, including the standard grass-only habitat.

Across Europe agricultural intensification since the 1970s has led to a significant decline in farmland birds. In the UK this necessitated a research programme to investigate the ecological requirements of priority bird species most at risk. This resulted in a farmland bird ‘package’ advocating the creation of new habitat and management of cropped areas – providing essential resources for birds.

The findings of the latest study, which have implications for ecological conservation on farms under agri-environment schemes, include evidence that:

  • Sowing forbs (herbaceous flowering plants) in buffer strips increases plant resources for farmland birds.
  • Cut grass-only buffer strips provide similar beetle resources for birds as with forb-rich mixes.
  • The value of grass-only buffer strips for farmland birds can be increased with disturbance of the buffer strip with a harrow to create approximately 60% bare ground.

Dr Woodcock, a co-author of the research from CEH, said, “Supporting farmland birds in modern agriculture depends on providing them with enough food, particularly when they are breeding and have chicks. 

“What this study shows is that the quality of habitat created at the edges of arable fields is crucial in terms of the amount of food produced. 

“As these field margin habitats are on land that could otherwise be used to grow crops, it is of vital importance that opportunities for birds to use this resource are not wasted by managing to the highest quality to provide as much bird food as possible.”

“What this study shows is that the quality of habitat created at the edges of arable fields is crucial in terms of the amount of food produced." Dr Ben Woodcock, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. 

A key recommendation of the study, as an alternative to annual cutting, is that scarification is periodically applied to 1 to 3 metre strips next to the crop edge to improve the value of more cost-effective grass-only buffer strips for farmland birds.

Flowers in a field margin
Caption: Flowers in a field margin (credit: Duncan Westbury)

Dr Duncan Westbury, lead author of the research, said, “Buffer strips have many different functional roles in agricultural landscapes, but it is evident that their ability to support many farmland bird species has been limited due to birds not always having access to the resources within.

“This study has shown that the availability and accessibility of key resources for farmland birds can be enhanced through simple but effective approaches. The barrier to widespread implementation is now to convince policy makers to support such action.”

The research was conducted as part of the Sustainable Arable Farming for an Improved Environment (SAFFIE) project sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the Scottish Executive Environment and Rural Affairs Department (SEERAD) and Natural England, through the Sustainable Arable LINK programme.

Additional information

The paper ‘Buffer strip management to deliver plant and invertebrate resources for farmland birds in agricultural landscapes’ D B Westbury et al, Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, Vol 240, was published online on 1 March 2017 as an open access document. DOI: 10.1016/j.agee.2017.02.031

Industrial sponsors were: British Potato Council, Agricultural Industries Confederation (AIC), Crop Protection Association, Home-Grown Cereals Authority (HGCA), Jonathan Tipples, Linking Environment and Farming (LEAF), Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), Sainsbury Supermarkets Ltd, Syngenta, National Trust and Wm Morrison Supermarkets PLC.

Staff page for Dr Ben Woodcock


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