RICHARD WILLIAMSON: Where have all the farm birds gone?

Where have all the farm birds gone? West Sussex farmers will be finding out next week.

They are going to look at the birds on Houghton Farm near Arundel (part of this week’s walk) and hope to identify up to 20 different species.

It is all part of The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust’s plan to improve farmland habitats for diminishing numbers of birds. Any farmer who wants to have a day out learning what all those LBBs (Little Brown Birds) are, flitting about the hedgerows and fields, can join in for the day. To see if there are any places left on Thursday next, 2 February, visit www.gwct.org.uk/bfbc. or phone the press office on 01425 651000.

Jim Egan of the GWCT says that 18 days have been arranged across Britain from Cornwall to Perthshire when farmland bird experts will be on hand for the days’ tuitions. Last year 970 farms took part and 130 species were identified over nearly a million acres of farmland. The day costs £10 and there will be special offer vouchers for bird seed to attract farmland birds. If you miss this day the scheme seems set to run on next year, as it has done for the past three years. It’s hoped that farmers will tweet (#bfbc) pictures of birds on their day out or email photos to info@gwct.org.uk.

It will be most interesting to see what they find. I have published several walks over these Downs for years in this paper in the hope of getting more people out to see what the Norfolk Estate have done to increase farm bird numbers. I hope the farmers will see Grey Partridges, Corn Buntings, and Skylarks. These are becoming the crown jewels in the diminishing species which once were so common.

Also pictured on the hand-out leaflet issued by GWCT (which is supported by RSPB, FWAG, CLA, LEAF and NFU) are Red-legged Partridge, Starling, Yellowhammer, Meadow Pipit, House Sparrow, Tree Sparrow, Linnet, Reed bunting, and Chaffinch. Most of these have become rare on farmland and that is a tragedy. It has happened in only 30 years. It can be reversed. It just needs farmers to get an interest in what is happening on their land and adapt to needs of the biosphere.

One way in which wild birds can flourish on farmland is in cover planted for pheasant shooting. Sweet corn, Millet, and Fat-hen are among many species used to hold pheasants for shooting. Chaffinches, Bramblings, Linnets, Goldfinches and Jays enjoy these food strips too. There has also been a move towards late winter planting of farm crops as well, with harvest stubble fields helping all farm birds to over-winter. One farmer who tried his best to know what was on his farm was the late Ronnie Langmead of Stoughton, one-time High Sheriff of Sussex.

He was a shooting man both for deer and pheasants and managed to host, and know the whereabouts on his farm, of over 100 species of wild birds. That is the sort of achievement the countryside needs now.