GWCT Big Farmland Bird Count – a barometer of the countryside
By Eleanor Williams, GWCT Communications Officer
It’s that time of year again, when farmers, land managers, keepers and their friends pull on their thermals and wellies and head out early in the morning to stand with a pair of binoculars in the corner of a field for half an hour.
You might wonder what they are up to as many repeat this curious outing every February.
It is of course time for another round of the annual Big Farmland Bird Count – when rural folk head out to record the number of species and abundance of farmland birds across the UK.
Think of it as a large wild bird monitoring operation spanning the breadth and length of the UK’s farmland. It is one of the biggest citizen science projects of the year and regularly attracts thousands of farmers, landowners, gamekeepers, land managers, rangers and other bird enthusiasts.
The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust has been running The Big Farmland Bird Count – or BFBC – since 2014. The NFU remains the main sponsor, while a number of other organisations also support the initiative.
It all began as a way of raising awareness of the important role farmers play in the conservation of farmland birds, and to get a snapshot of the bird population on UK farms.
The GWCT’s Dr Roger Draycott, who leads the project explained the reason for running the count during winter.
“February represents a time when farmers are not quite as busy as they are in the spring months, both in the arable sector and the livestock sector so we hope they have time to get out there and count.
“It’s also an incredibly important time of year for farmland birds because it’s the hungry gap, the time of year when it’s very cold and very little natural food available.
“This is an opportunity to highlight the habitat that many farmers provide, that is incredibly valuable for farmland birds at this time of year – things like late winter supplementary feeding and cover crops are tremendous options that are available in stewardship to boost farmland bird populations.”
With 72% of the land in the UK being farmland, the BFBC is one of the most important tools there is to measure the effect conservation efforts are having on our land.
Roger added: “More than one in four of the UK’s bird species is in serious trouble. We will not halt the alarming declines of species such as curlew and skylarks if we leave it to nature reserves and national parks alone. Biodiversity recovery must take place alongside sustainable production.”
The BFBC not only helps us understand how our farmland birds are faring and spot any trends in the abundance of certain species, but it is also a way for farmers and land managers themselves to measure the impact that their conservation efforts are having on their land, to see if supplementary feeding and habitat improvement work are having an effect.
They can also compare results with other farms in their region and across the UK and see how their farm fits into the bigger picture of farmland bird conservation.
A decade of counting
Since the first BFBC a decade ago, more than 11,000 counts have been carried out. Last year, 149 species were recorded across more than 1.5 million acres by 1,700 people – they counted more than 460,000 birds, and of those, 33 feature on the Red List for birds of Conservation Concern.
What does the data from the past 10 years tell us?
- Since 2014, between 980 and 2830 farmers and land managers have participated each year, spread from Cornwall to Inverness-shire.
- An average of 19 bird species was recorded during the 30-minute count in February 2023, with a maximum of 65 species at one site.
- Finches and buntings were more numerous on arable than pastoral farms, with 9% of farms in 2023 recording flocks of more than 100 birds.
- Four times as many yellowhammers were seen on farms with both an agri-environment scheme and supplementary feeding than on farms with no scheme or feeding.
- On average in 2023, there were three times as many red kites seen as kestrels. Breeding kestrel numbers have declined by 40% since 1995, with less suitable habitat on farmland, whereas red kite numbers have increased by 1935% during the same time.
‘Rewards of taking part are immeasurable”
Andrew Goodall is a lifelong birder and volunteer counter who has been taking part in ornithological citizen science projects since the 1970s.
Last year he teamed up with the newly formed High Suffolk Farm Cluster to help the farmers there carry out the count.
He said: “Farmers within the cluster are passionate about their farms and the wildlife they support. Some are fully aware about many of the bird species they have on their farms whilst others know the common birds but not necessarily the less common species, which is where I am able to assist.
“We have recorded white-tailed Sea Eagle (a Dutch ringed bird), Hen Harrier, plus lots of Grey Partridge, Linnet, Yellowhammer. Even Turtle Dove is still breeding on some of the farms.
“Additional rewards are immeasurable. Sitting with some of the farmers' children and pointing out birds to them is so rewarding.
“Building friendships with the farmers and their families is great and having an open door (or field) to return any time to birdwatch is priceless.”
If you are thinking of taking part – please do. Participating in the BFBC is a great way to show your support for wildlife conservation, and to contribute to the scientific knowledge and understanding of farmland birds. Make sure you don’t miss out by signing up for the free BFBC newsletter at www.bfbc.org.uk.
So go on, get out there and start counting!
A guide to taking part:
When and Where to Count
The BFBC 2024 starts on the 2 February and runs for two weeks, finishing on 18 February. You can count birds on your farm on any day within this period, but you should only do one count per farm.
You should choose a location that has a good view of around 2 ha of the land, and that includes or is close to an area with seed mix or supplementary feeding. These are the areas that are likely to attract more birds, and that reflect the conservation work that you do on your farm.
You should also consider the habitat and cropping on and adjacent to your chosen area, as these may affect the types and numbers of birds you see. For example, you may see different birds on a grassland than on a winter wheat field.
How to Count
You should spend about 30 minutes recording the species and number of birds you see on your chosen area. You should also note down any other wildlife you see, such as hares, deer, or foxes.
The best time to count is at first light, when the birds are most active and visible. But you can count at any time of day that suits you. Try to choose a dry and calm day, or find a sheltered spot near a hedgerow or a feeder.
You can use a pair of binoculars or a spotting scope to help you identify the birds, but you don't need any special equipment or skills to take part. You can also download and use a free colour farmland bird ID guide produced by the GWCT, which contains images and descriptions of a number of farmland bird species.
There are also apps which are free and easy to use that you could use. For example the Merlin Bird ID by Cornell Lab allows you to identify birds in different ways such as photos, questions and an audio recognition tool.
How to Submit Results
You can submit your results online using our survey platform. You will need to register and log in to the platform, and then follow the instructions to enter your data. You can also upload photos of your count area and the birds you see.
Submitting your results online is the easiest and fastest way to share your data with the GWCT and the NFU, and to see how your farm compares to others across the country. You can also view the results from previous years and see the trends and changes in the bird population on the BFBC website.
What farms can do to help birds:
- Creating ‘conservation headlands’ – wide field margins where little or no pesticides are used – will help many farmland birds.
- Allowing broad-leaved weeds to flourish boosts insect populations which are a key food-source for birds.
- Planting and managing hedgerows which provide crucial food, as well as nesting habitat and a safe haven from predators.
- Maintaining small wet areas around the farm will help attract wading birds.
- Leaving an area of uncropped, cultivated land can provide suitable nesting and foraging areas for birds which prefer to forage on open ground, such as the red-listed lapwing, skylark, stone curlew and turtle dove.
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