BTO research has been central to the whole “farmland bird story”, from identifying declines, through diagnosing causes to designing solutions to this conservation issue. The chief policy response and solution to this conservation issue has been to instigate agri-environment schemes (AES), in which farmers are paid for the income they forego to do environmental management on their land. Many of the options within these schemes are aimed specifically at benefiting birds and BTO datasets mean that birds are the best monitored taxon to provide an indicator of wider environmental health. Bird responses to AES management therefore provide an important measure as to the efficacy of the schemes.
In England, the AES that is open to all farmers and designed to improve the broader landscape is Entry-Level Environmental Stewardship (ELS), within which farmers are free to choose management options that suit their farming systems. This scheme, which began in 2005, is designed to enhance the wider countryside, so the BBS is an appropriate dataset with which to monitor its success. Funding by NE and Defra allowed us to double the size of the BBS survey sample for lowland England and to analyse the changes in numbers of farmland bird species between 2005 and 2008 with respect to the locations of ELS management. In addition, a more intensive survey of 100 squares investigated territory locations in 2008 with respect to ELS options. Nationally, there was little evidence for effects of ELS on birds (Davey et al. 2010a), but there were signs that the scheme might have some regional benefits (Davey et al. 2010b) and that some species might be choosing ELS-managed fields as breeding locations (Davey et al. 2010c). Overall, however, there was no definitive evidence that the scheme was succeeding in reversing farmland bird declines.
Possible reasons for ELS failure to-date include time-lags in bird responses, weaknesses in option design and lack of uptake of the most important, in-field options. The latter two are being addressed via enhanced advice to farmers from NE advisors and scheme revisions from 2010 onwards. Time-lags are a problem because the key date for the assessment of ELS success is that of the Common Agricultural Policy reform scheduled for 2013. This will decide the future of AES funding across the EU, so information on success or failure by this data represents a policy imperative. To this end, the BTO is conducting further analytical research, funded by NE, to make the best use of the BBS data available up to and including 2010. BTO staff will also, as before, have a key role to play in determining how the evidence informs policy.
Davey, C.M., Vickery, J.A., Boatman, N.D., Chamberlain, D.E. Parry, H.R. & Siriwardena, G.M. 2010a. Assessing the impact of Entry Level Stewardship on lowland farmland birds in England. Ibis: 152: 459-474.
Davey, C.M., Vickery, J.A., Boatman, N.D., Chamberlain, D.E. Parry, H.R. & Siriwardena, G.M. 2010b. Regional variation in the efficacy of Entry Level Stewardship in England. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 139: 121-128.
Davey, C.M., Vickery, J.A., Boatman, N.D., Chamberlain, D.E. & Siriwardena, G.M. 2010c. Entry Level Stewardship may enhance bird numbers in boundary habitats. Bird Study 57: 415-420.