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Study Looks at Ways to Improve the Survival of Farmland Birds

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Planting wild flowers at the edges of arable fields could significantly improve the habitat for farmland birds and contribute to their survival, a study has found.

Researchers have been exploring how making simple changes to land left at the edges of fields could have a huge impact on wildlife.

Dr Duncan Westbury, a senior ecologist from the University of Worcester, has been working with the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) and scientists from the University of Reading, to investigate the effect of three different seed mixes, including the standard grass-only mix, in addressing the decline of birds like yellowhammers, goldfinches and whitethroats across agricultural landscapes.

The study looked at what plant and invertebrate resources, such as beetles, were present in so-called ‘field margins’ – strips of land left at the edges of crop fields.

It found that if areas sown with certain plant species, such as knapweed and teasel, were managed with annual cultivation the amount of food available to birds was dramatically increased.

Dr Westbury said: “It is evident that the ability of field margins to support many farmland bird species has been limited due to birds not always being able to find enough food within them.

“This study has shown that the availability and accessibility of food for farmland birds can be enhanced through simple but effective approaches, which could be crucial to the survival of many species. The barrier to widespread implementation is now to convince policy makers to support such action.”

The research findings were published in the Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment journal.

The study also recommends that periodically cultivating grass-only areas next to the crop edge, as opposed to annual mowing, can improve their value to birds.

The findings of this study have implications for ecological conservation on farms which are part of national schemes that were devised to address the decline in farmland birds in the UK.

Dr Ben Woodcock, a co-author of the research from CEH, said: “What this study shows is that the quality of habitat created at the edges of arable fields is crucial in terms of the amount of food produced.

“As these field margin habitats are on land that could otherwise be used to grow crops, it is of vital importance that opportunities for birds to use this resource are not wasted, by managing to the highest quality to provide as much bird food as possible.”

The paper ‘Buffer strip management to deliver plant and invertebrate resources for farmland birds in agricultural landscapes’ D.B Westbury, et al, Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, Vol 240, was published online as an open access document and can be accessed here: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0167880917301020.

Picture of field margin - credit Duncan Westbury