Basin Notes - April 2000

Farming crucial to wildlife conservation

Farming, in one form or another, involves 70 per cent of Britain's land mass and therefore plays a crucial role in the conservation of our wildlife. But all is not well out there.

A number of surveys in recent years have shown a major decline in many of our birds Over a 25 year period, Tree sparrows are down by 80 per cent, song thrush by 73 per cent and black- bird by 30 per cent

Even the humble house sparrow is declining and our most common duck, the mallard, has reduced in number by 25 per cent in the last decade.

Linnet, yellowhammer, whitethroat, grey partridge, black grouse and chough are other species that continue to decline

It is now fairly evident that changes in agricultural practices over the years have played an important part in the reduction of many of our birds One of the joys of spring is watching the twisting, tumbling flight display of the lapwing, but in the past 11 years it has declined by up to 50 per cent in some parts of Eng- land and by 73 per cent in Wales

In some areas, they have vanished entirely. The sowing of autumn cereal instead of in the spring has restricted nesting sites as has loss of grassland, and the use of herbicides and pesticides kill off plants and invertebrates so that chicks may not have sufficient food to survive. Thankfully in Scotland their decline has I been less marked, a recent survey suggesting a population of around 70,000 breeding pairs.

Lapwings start to come down to the Basin from their breeding grounds in July and August with highest counts for the year usually seen in September. The highest 1998 count was 2600 falling to only 1200 in 1999. While these counts are simply a snapshot in time, there is no doubt that seasoned Basin watchers are noticing a decline in this once common bird of the countryside

The barn owl is now a rare bird in many areas, the present UK population being around 4500 - a reduction of 70 per cent in its numbers since the 1940s.

It too is suffering from the intensification of farming In the past, the rich tapestry of farmland provided good habitat for a variety of mammals and so too for hunting barn owls

No self respecting farm was without a family or two of rats around the farmyard, which in turn provided a very substantial meal for this ghostly predator.

However, pesticide poisoning, the cultivation of marginal land including the loss of much rough grassland, reduced the diversity of habitat and with it a decline in field vole, a major source of prey In many areas the barn own now has to survive in a diminishing habitat containing smaller rodents which then brings it into competition with the kestrel and little owl

The felling of old trees and the conversion of barns and steadings into new homes has reduced nesting site capacity by 40 per cent over the last two decades. Despite all this, numbers now seem to be stabilising and purpose-built nest boxes (around 35,000 throughout the country) are now being used by 38 per cent of breeding barn owls.

Nature reserves run by bodies such as the Scottish Wildlife Trust and RSPB play an ever increasing role in preserving and improving the habitat for our wildlife. In the wider scheme of things, however, the pressure to attain greater efficiency, the increasing muscle of the supermarket and the intense competition in food production are powerful forces in today's society

This continuing cleansing of the countryside bodes ill for the future of our more vulnerable flora and fauna.