Sixfold increase in farmland bird numbers on Welsh cover crop project sites - Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust

Welsh farms have significantly increased populations of farmland birds since growing seed-bearing cover crops and providing feeding stations containing supplementary seed.

A European Innovation Partnership (EIP) Wales project, run in conjunction with The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) on two farms, has sought to help reverse the decline of farmland bird numbers in Wales.

As the three-year project nears its conclusion, it shows dramatic results.

linnet, a small brown bird with russet pink crown and flushing on the breast, perching on green oil seed rape seed pods
Linnet on oil seed rape (photo: Kathy Buscher)

Winter surveys have shown a sixfold increase in the number of the birds visiting those farms, including linnets, a species on the red list of Birds of Conservation Concern. Crucially, breeding bird surveys found a doubling of farmland bird populations.

GWCT Advisor for Wales, Matt Goodall, said the entomology team has also found higher numbers of insects in the cover crops, and a more diverse range of species, which helps provide feed for the birds and for their chicks in the spring and summer.

Mr Goodall points out that it is not just birds that benefit from winter cover crops but farm soils too. “These are deeper rooting plants so there is the potential to improve soil health and sequester more carbon, especially if the crop is direct drilled.’’

Across Wales and in the UK in general, farmland bird numbers have declined with species like the corn bunting disappearing altogether from Wales, and others, including the yellowhammer, red listed.

Baseline surveys of populations in the first year of the project provided a starting point.

The survey recently undertaken as the project concludes showed a sharp increase in bird numbers.

Mr Goodall says the results had exceeded expectations. “Some sceptics might suggest that we are attracting birds from other areas to these sites, that we are not seeing an increase in populations, but even if that was the case those birds are surviving the winter rather than dying and are stronger going into the breeding season. However, our breeding bird surveys show that the crops and feed do make a difference to the populations on the farms themselves.’’

What had been unexpected was the doubling of breeding bird numbers so quickly and within the life of the project, he adds.

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Posted On: 17/02/2023

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