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Farmland Birds

For centuries, farmland birds have coexisted with agriculture relying on traditional farming practices and the habitats they create.

Farming practices have, however, intensified significantly since the 1950s and as a result, many farmland bird species have displayed worrying declines. Skylarks singing and dancing in the air, the distinctive pee-wit cry of the lapwing, once common on farms throughout the countryside are now rare. Changes to traditional farming practices, increased use of agro-chemicals and loss of semi-natural habitats has contributed to a loss of nesting and feeding sites.

Small changes in farming practices and agri-environmental management can, however, benefit a wide range of farmland birds and help to reverse declines. Farmland birds need:

  1. Access to invertebrate-rich habitats to feed their chicks during the breeding season.
  2. Seeds and berries to sustain populations throughout the winter.
  3. Safe places to nest and rear chicks.
Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0
Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

These resources are collectively known as the big three for farmland birds. Few habitats offer all resources and therefore a diversity of habitats are usually required to sustain breeding populations.

ChangeImpact on the breeding and foraging habitat of farmland birdsExamples of bird species impacted
Increased field sizes - (a)Loss of hedgerows and farm woodlands that provide shelter and nesting sitesYellowhammer
Tree sparrow
Increased field sizes - (b)Loss of floristically diverse field margins that provide insect-rich foraging habitats and a source of winter seedYellowhammer
Grey partridge
Change from hay to silageCutting during the breeding season and increased frequency of cutting increases the risk of disturbing nests and offspring of ground nesting birdsSkylark
Winter sown cereals rather than spring sown cereals - (a)Loss of nesting sitesSkylark
Winter sown cereals rather than spring sown cereals (b)Loss of winter stubble providing weed seeds and spilt grain during the winterCorn bunting
Grey partridge
Increased insecticide and herbicide applicationsDeclines in insects a vital source of food for many species during the breeding season. Loss of weed seeds.Corn bunting
Grey partridge
Tree sparrow
Loss of mixed farming systems and simplification of crops grownBirds that can move locally between nesting and feeding habitats fail to locate the required habitats in close proximityLapwing
Grey partridge
Fields drained to increase productivityLoss of wetland habitats rich in soil invertebratesCurlew

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