7th October 2015
Spectacular results for farmland birds thanks to George’s stewardship efforts
George Eaton sets a fantastic example to the farming community. His conservation work has produced some extraordinary results, with several bird species, including many that are in decline, feeding on the crops and highlighting the great value of George’s stewardship efforts.
Joint winner of the Gold Purdey Award in 2014, George manages Rectory Farm in Buckinghamshire which, along with his conservation work, combines arable and livestock farming with a small shoot and educational visits. He also won a 2014 Waitrose Farming Partnership Award for Environmental Sustainability in livestock farming.
Rectory Farm has been a trials and demonstration site for Kings for five years, growing crops at field scale to develop new mixtures. Several game cover and conservation crops are grown as part of this trials work and also under a Higher Level Stewardship scheme, including Moir Mix, Campaign Mix, autumn sown wild bird seed mixtures, a bespoke floristically enhanced margin mixture and herbal mixture in a forage grass ley.
It is within or adjacent to these crops that Garry Marsh, a qualified bird ringer working on an amateur basis for the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), catches and rings a sample of the birds present every week to ten days. He has ringed over 1000 new birds there during the last year. Of the 30 species that have been ringed at the site, eight are in the red category on the Birds of Conservation Concern list, representing species of high concern, usually because they have declined substantially. A further five are in the amber category, representing birds of medium conservation concern. Almost 20% of all birds ringed in Buckinghamshire over the last twelve months were at Rectory Farm and more than half of the total birds ringed on the site are of conservation concern.
George describes some of the most notable visitors. “Garry has caught a song thrush here that had previously been ringed over a hundred miles away in North Yorkshire. We also had a chiffchaff that was ringed here in the summer as a juvenile and then, having probably overwintered in North Africa or Southern Europe, the same bird came back to this same spot again in May. I find that remarkable.”
George believes the birds come back for good reason. “They say the hungry gap lasts for a few months in winter, but I think the higher numbers here are an indication that there’s not as much food out there for the birds as people think.”
Senior conservation officer at RSPB, Kirsty Brannan agrees. “It’s really interesting that the birds are being found mostly on the wild bird seed and game cover at this time of year as these crops are primarily designed to provide seed in the winter,” she says. “At the moment the seed is still ripening and you’d normally think that there would be quite a lot of food for wildlife in the wider countryside.”
The numbers from recent weeks have lead Kirsty to believe that many of the birds that pass through Rectory Farm are migrating, moving through the countryside from North to South and heading over the Mediterranean. “They appear to be looking for areas of cover and food that they can work their way through while they’re migrating,” she explains. “That’s not something that you would normally think of these features being used for. They are acting as important stepping stones along the flyway that means these birds can survive their strenuous journey.”
The population of yellowhammers at the site in late winter is especially notable and the number of new birds, Kirsty says, is amazing for a site that isn’t very large. One was unusually caught in August too, but that’s not all. “This is a red listed bird and the total ringed at Rectory Farm represents over 3% of the total ringed in the UK,” Garry reveals. “With the exception of just one, all of the yellowhammers ringed in Buckinghamshire in 2014 were at Rectory Farm.”
“Similarly all the tree sparrows and linnets ringed in Buckinghamshire in 2014 were at Rectory Farm,” Garry continues, “along with most of the reed buntings. All of these species are of conservation concern.”
The data Garry has recorded shows that reed buntings arrive in mid September and stay through to December, whereas yellowhammers arrive in high numbers in December and stay right through to April, so in theory they’re feeding on a different food within the crop.
Kirsty also points out that some of the bird species caught in the crop eat only insects, suggesting that some birds are eating insects from the game and conservation mixes rather than seeds.
The numbers are primarily due to George’s efforts, Garry emphasises. “Geography and landscape play a small part,” he explains, “but it is mostly due to George’s crops that Rectory Farm plays a very important role.”
Kings technical advisor Marc Bull attributes the success to George’s enthusiasm, commitment and excellent management. “The figures reflect George’s ongoing hard work on habitat management. The most common issue with game cover and conservation crops is that they’re neglected; George looks after them as though they are arable crops and that’s why they meet their full potential, which is clearly benefitting the wildlife that visit. His predator management is key too; without this, it wouldn’t be such a success story.” Marc adds that three pairs of grey partridge frequent Rectory Farm every spring too, usually producing two broods and often complemented by a brood of red-legs and pheasants.
Having worked with George for many years, Kirsty too believes that George’s approach is vital. “George manages his farm in a wildlife friendly manner and pays a lot of attention to detail. He’s always willing to try something different if he thinks it’s going to provide benefits for wildlife.”
This includes making amendments to the food available and George has plans to reduce the area of cover so that he can provide even more seed. “Marc and Richard (Kings manager) help me to work out how to tweak the mixtures to get the results I want,” he explains. “We’ve amended the Campaign Mix this year, for example, to include more sorghum and red and white millet so that there’s more feed for the birds.”
This willingness to try new things is what makes Rectory Farm an ideal Kings demonstration farm. “George helps us with developing Kings mixtures,” Marc explains. “It was his idea for us to look at including hedge bedstraw in our basic wildflower mixture. He trials how to manage them too; he is happy to try different timings and rates, for example and the outcomes help Kings to advise other growers effectively.”
The whole team is excited for the future. As George continues to work with Garry, Kirsty and Marc to develop the food sources available, they look forward to having more data to compare year against year. This will be used to draw conclusions as to which crops each species is feeding on. Already this year linnets are much more abundant and the team plans to identify exactly what is bringing them in so that further tweaks can be made and even more birds can benefit.