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Avocet On March - 7 - 2013

5 March 2013

Environment Minister Richard Benyon today visited Hillesden Farm in Buckinghamshire, which is at the forefront of research work into how Environmental Stewardship can better deliver benefits to wildlife alongside the vital role the scheme plays in investing in England’s farm businesses.

Richard Benyon dicussing winter bird feeding options at Hillesden Farm, Buckinghamshire

Richard Benyon finds out more about winter bird feeding at Hillesden Farm © Linzee Kottman / Natural England

For the last five years, Hillesden has been the home of a detailed study where areas of the farm have been managed under different Environmental Stewardship options to provide a scientific comparison on how best to tackle the ‘hungry gap’ for farmland birds – the period between mid-winter and spring when naturally available and planted bird seed food can be in short supply in the countryside.

The Hillesden Farm study showed that winter food habitats were largely exhausted by the end of December and that the separate provision of food at the farm level appeared to significantly increase the number of birds surviving over the winter.

The work at Hillesden has helped inform the development of new Environmental Stewardship options that are designed to encourage farmers to provide food for wild birds during the ‘hungry gap’.

Since 1 January 2013, five new wildlife-friendly Environmental Stewardship options have been available to farmers, including a new incentive to provide supplementary food for seed-eating birds – such as finches, buntings and sparrows. This new option is straightforward to implement and does not require any additional land to be taken out of production. There is also a new option for grassland farmers to provide winter food for birds by allowing a ryegrass sward to re-grow and set seed after a silage cut has been taken.

With almost 60 farms already signed up to deliver the new winter bird food options, Richard Benyon said:

“The work being undertaken here at Hillesden is giving us an increasingly clear picture of how Environmental Stewardship can provide benefits for wildlife and businesses.

“It is a great example of how dedicated on-farm research can help wildlife and the action being taken to provide food over the winter for farmland birds is making a massive difference.

“I’m delighted at the enthusiasm farmers are already showing in tackling this hungry gap.”

The final results from the first part of the Hillesden study will be completed in mid 2013, but research findings already show that providing a good supply of cereal, oilseed and specialised grains from mid-winter to early spring can help birds such as yellowhammers and tree sparrows survive the winter.

Short-term provision of specialised grain on farm tracks during these critical months can really make a difference. Already, nearly 2,000 tonnes of feed will be available during the lifetime of the 57 agreements signed up so far, so the potential for bridging the hungry gap is significant.

Natural England’s Chair Poul Christensen said: “The ongoing research at Hillesden is proving to be a valuable, practical test of the effectiveness of ELS option combinations. Its a  real-life look at how Environmental Stewardship can be applied at a farm-scale, replicating as closely as possible the choices that a commercial farmer would make and shows how farmers can bring real benefits to the environment and particularly in tackling the decline in our country’s much loved seed-eating birds.”

The work at Hillesden Farm was carried out by Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and Wildlife Farming Company in partnership with Faccenda Farms and British Trust for Ornithology and jointly funded by Defra and Natural England.

Categories: Farmland Birds, News

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