Last Friday, March 20th, SongBirdSignBird hailed up at RSPB Farmland Bird Survey training on location in Co. Down. At a farm not a mile of ground from Ardglass, a group of hardy perennials gathered in a farmer’s barn with walled with silage bales to be inducted by Phillip Carson, Conservation Advisor of the RSPB. Among the first points that Phillip made is that agriculture has been traditionally associated with many species of wildlife. The shaping of the land that farming has brought about has encouraged many species that could be regarded as commensals of farming. This is evidenced in the names of the likes of the barn owl, the corncrake.
The Farmland Bird Surveys are an important part of the RSPB’s aim to encourage and support farmers to facilitate the maintenance of avian biodiversity, and indeed biodiversity in general. Farmers have always been important guardians of the countryside but the farming practices that the imperative for greater productivity have encouraged over the last thirty years or more, have resulted in catastrophic declines in many formerly common species. Land ‘improvements’, including drainage, fertiliser application, intensive grassland management, the switch from hay to silage, together with high stocking densities and the general decline in mixed farming, have all contributed to the vanquishing of many formerly familiar species. Factory farming isn’t just confined to battery hens. The very land itself has become homogenised. The rough acre, the boggy patch, the tangled bank, have been rooted out, destroyed. Banished, therefore, are many of our old neighbours. The demise of the corncrake is well known; less so is that of the elegant curlew, which has featured in so much Irish poetry, is almost gone as a breeding species, a fact not that well-recognised due the still relatively high numbers of winter visitors from Scandinavia; but those graceful birds, with their bubbling call, are becoming as rare as hen’s teeth as residents. Similarly the lapwing, with its delightful lolloping flight, the weird static of its cries, is under major threat. The skylark is in precipitous decline. And sparrows and some finches have undergone massive reductions in number, the yellowhammer collapsing from over 30,000 to 5000 pairs in just a few years. East County Down is one of the RSPB’s focal areas, the only one in Northern Ireland for Farmland Birds.
Phillip took us through the survey methodology, which, in principle, is very similar to that of the BTO’s Breeding Bird Survey. However, this one is bigger in scale, requiring 4 rather than 2 survey visits, one in late April, two in May, and one in June. We are assigned 1-2 farms and a route to circumnavigate the farm. We have to mark the specific locations and behaviours of six priority species: yellowhammer; reed bunting; tree sparrow; linnet; lapwing; and skylark. One of these species, the red bunting, is amber-listed (25% reduction in the last 25 years); the others are red-listed (50% reduction in the last 25 years).
After checking the visuals and audios of the six priority species, we moved outdoors for outdoor training. Among the usual suspects, we saw two of the priorities: yellowhammer and reed bunting. Both were male, the yellowhammer a wonderful splash of canary-yellow against the ivy-green of a hedge. With luck, I’ll see more on the actual survey, as the breeding season progresses.