One of the key aims of the Farmer Cluster is to help farmers better understand the wildlife on their farms and to help sharpen up their identification skills. In support of this, a winter and spring bird survey programme was carried out and for the first time recorded data as part of the GWCT Big Farmland Bird Count.
In 2019, a total of 75 species were recorded by 9 volunteers across 13 participating farms on 35 survey visits. Rarities such as Short eared Owl, Hawfinch, Crossbill, Brambling and Firecrest were recorded as well as passage migrants such as Wheatear. However, it was with the more common farmland birds that the surveys really made an impact.
On one level the surveys showed a healthy distribution of Yellowhammer, Linnet and to a degree Corn Bunting. However, the total counts showed that only 2 farms had counts of 10 or more Yellowhammer and Linnet and only one farm had more than 1 breeding territory of Corn Bunting.
In response, the farmers collectively agreed to address this and look at ways of supporting farmland bird populations. Studies have shown supplementary feeding has supported birds to be in better condition at the start of the breeding season, increase the numbers of birds surviving the winter and producing more successful broods.
Building on this, advice was sought from both ecologists and other farms that are delivering successful projects and a cluster-wide Supplementary Feeding project was agreed and is now in its first winter.
Thanks to funding provided by the Chilterns Conservation Board Chalk, Cherries, and Chairs project, 9 tonnes of a specific seed mix were ordered from Oakbank Game and Conservation (0.5 tonnes for each of the 18 farms) and 39 Perdix Feeders.
Feeding sites are now established across all 18 farms providing a vital food source for farmland birds in the hungry gap between December and March; providing a much-needed lifeline for overwintering finches, buntings, and tits.
On the back of this, the Hughenden Ringing Group have set up what we hope will be a long term ringing study across 3 farms. The study will aim to ring at least once a month between November and April on the 3 farms across the 5 years of the project.
Early data from the first 2 months of ringing report 45 birds were processed in the initial sessions in November including 6 Yellowhammers. In the second session 125 birds were processed including 40 Yellowhammers and 3 Corn Buntings; this was following 4 days of sharp frost.
The project has only just started but has shown an immediate impact and value to the work the farmers are doing on their own farm and, more importantly, collectively across the cluster.