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Incidental birds in farmers’ life stories

Dr Paul Merchant

National Life Stories

The British Library

Corn buntings with farmland background

Credit: Richard Crossley CC BY-SA 3.0

This blog is concerned with the presence of certain wild birds in life story interviews with British farmers, recorded recently for the project ‘An oral history of farming, land management and conservation in post-war Britain’ at the British Library.[1] I ignore birds generally regarded as significant crop pests (pigeons, crows), valued as game (partridges, pheasants), or controlled as predators of game (crows, magpies). I focus instead on birds that it was not necessary to attend to as part of conventional farming and land management, such as corn buntings, curlews, lapwings and skylarks.


Accounts of growing up on farms in the 1940s and 1950s stress that such birds were present incidentally. They appeared in and around fields and were strongly valued by some but they were not in any way encouraged:


The farmers of those days ... didn’t know particularly ... the value that they were giving. For instance, my grandfather used to love the plovers coming back. He didn’t know why they were there. And he didn’t know what he was doing to support them.[2]


We had a peat meadow at the bottom of the farm with a canal going through it. And the curlews used to nest near the canal, where we grew grass of course, because we couldn’t grow anything else. And I can hear them. I can’t repeat it, because I can’t repeat it, but it’s a lovely noise.[3][Audio Clip 1]


It just so happened that farming practices still common at the time – including spring planting of cereals, limited pesticide use, hay production and mixed farming – afforded space and food for certain wild birds through their life cycles. Whether they were ignored or loved, they appeared.


As practices changed on most British farms, especially from the 1960s, habitat and food for some of these birds became increasingly scarce. Autumn planted cereals replaced winter food and were too thick by spring to afford nest sites. Pesticides killed insects directly and indirectly (by killing host plants). And silage-making cut breeding short. But new practices such as these excluded birds no more deliberately than they had been included by those practices they were replacing:


When I was a child we made hay, and you used to cut the hay at the beginning of June, and all the birds then had nested in the ... growing grass ... and got their babies off. When, then [in] the modern practice of making silage which ... is always cut earlier, usually about the first week in May ... because it came earlier in the year, sadly we now have no pewits, no curlew, and no corncrakes, entirely because of the change of farming practice. Which, I grieve about that really, but, that’s what, one had to make a living, and that’s how it was done, and how it’s still done.[4] [Audio Clip 2]


Given that these birds were incidental to the work of farming, as well as being not all that easy to spot (especially from a tractor cab at speed), it is not surprising that interviewees tend to describe the development and modernisation of their farms in the second half of the twentieth century with no reference to them at all. And even those farmers who were especially interested in birds suggest that they were able to put this interest to one side as they went about farming, at least for a while. For example, Poul Christensen – who developed a strong interest in birds as a child and as we will see went on to pioneer a form of farmland nature conservation – says that he was too busy as a new tenant farmer in Oxfordshire the late 1960s to notice whatever wild birds might have been present:


All our energies were devoted to trying to turn this farm around from the condition that we found it in ... we were working flat out all the time just to do that, and so we didn’t think about anything else really at the time.[5]


And Lincolnshire farmer Nicholas Watts – awarded an MBE in 2006 for services to farming and conservation – kept his bird watching and farming separate for the first two decades of his farming career:


I used to go, do a bit of birdwatching in the late Sixties and Seventies, but I was pretty busy trying to build the farm up, you know. But, but interest was still there. ... I was actually doing surveys in the Seventies for the Lincolnshire Bird Club and for the British Trust for Ornithology, but none of those ... surveys were on my farm.[6]


He was aware that corn buntings liked winter barley and that workers were reporting fewer sightings of skylark nests in sugar beet fields but he was not especially attentive to these and other birds on his farm until later.


Unusual observation and conservation


In the mid 1970s, with his dairy farm up and running, Poul Christensen telephoned the Nature Conservancy – the British government’s nature conservation agency formed in 1949 – to ask for advice on which hedges should be retained in the interests of wildlife. He remembers that they were surprised to be asked and at this time he was certainly in a minority of farmers seeking advice on nature conservation. The Nature Conservancy itself had only started to turn its attention to wildlife on farms in the early 1960s at the same time that the RSPB and BTO started recording ‘common birds’, especially those of farmland. As a result of the call, Christensen’s farm became, in 1979, the first in a series of Countryside Commission ‘Demonstration Farms’ designed to show how low cost conservation could be achieved alongside commercial, competitive farming. Those incidental birds that were neither game nor pests now became important indicators of nature conservation success or otherwise. Expert volunteers arrived each spring to conduct surveys, recording the presence of birds that Christensen himself might never have noticed:


So there would be probably fifteen or twenty people coming through the breeding season, the bird breeding season that is, doing a survey, walking exactly the same transect every time ... I’d occasionally walk round with some of these people and they’d hear just a snippet of birdsong and they’d write something down. And I said, what have you written down? And they’d say, oh that’s a, whatever it was. And I hadn’t even heard it, or hardly heard it.[7][Audio Clip 3]


The surveyors recorded the number of birds of each species seen or heard. For example, in 1978 there were 15 yellowhammers, 27 skylarks, and so on. It was enough in newspaper articles covering the success of conservation on Christensen’s farm to quote just the number of different species.

Headline of article on Poul Christensen’s Demonstration Farm in The Sunday Times, 15 August 1982, p.14

In the same year that this article appeared – 1982 – Nicholas Watts decided to use his own skills as a BTO surveyor to start recording birds on his farm in Lincolnshire. After ten years of getting up at dawn in the breeding season to plot birds ‘heard and then seen’, he was in a position to quantify declines in numbers and to develop theories about how birds used his and neighbouring farms.

Maps of corn buntings and skylarks on Nicholas Watt’s Vine House Farm, Lincolnshire and neighbouring farms in 1982 and 1992.

Credit: Courtesy of Nicholas Watts

Referring to these maps, he says:


And this farm is just the middle of those three coloured [columns] of fields.... And, this is, this orange, this mauve-y colour is winter barley. The dots are singing corn buntings. And all the singing corn buntings are within reach of the winter barley crops, except this, this one here ... perhaps thought there wasn’t room for him just up here, you know, there’s four of them there isn’t there. That’s how it was in those days, in 1982.But by 1992, there’s only one corn bunting left, we’ve stopped growing winter barley, and, there’s a sixty per cent decline in skylarks as well.[8] [Audio Clip 4]


Through survey and mapping, he developed new knowledge of what birds did, where and when.


Block cropping is detrimental for birds, because they haven’t got the choice of where to go. ... If all this area’s wheat, they haven’t… You know, they really want to be, just here, where there’s potatoes, there’s, that one is, peas, and there’s wheat ... they want to have three or four… When, when there’s food in one crop, another one’s run out of food.[9]


He now understood more of the ‘winged geographies’ of his farm and applied this from the early 1990s in attempts to encourage birds: reduced cutting and mowing, making habitats, feeding in certain places at certain times of year, avoiding block cropping and farming organically.


Conclusion


Incidental farmland birds have interested and even delighted British farmers, but the pressures of making a living have been very strong. Changes in farming that excluded such birds were made by farmers of all kinds, including those who especially noted their loss. From the 1970s, certain individuals started to look at incidental birds on their farms in a new way. They began to attend closely to them, drawing on forms of expert knowledge and practice in ornithology – their own or others’ - to inform their farm planning.In this way, they sought to make the presence of birds such as corn buntings no longer incidental.


[1] A National Life Stories project at the British Library funded by the Arcadia Fund.

[2] Hugh Oliver-Bellasis interviewed in 2019-2020, British Library catalogue reference: C1828/06, Track 1.

[3] Jill Hutchinson-Smith interviewed in 2020, British Library catalogue reference: C1828/19, Track 4.

[4] Jill Hutchinson-Smith interviewed in 2020, British Library catalogue reference: C1828/19, Track 4.

[5] Poul Christensen interviewed in 2020, British Library catalogue reference: C1828/08, Track 4. [6] Nicholas Watts interviewed in 2019-2020, British Library catalogue reference: C1828/14, Track 3.

[7] Poul Christensen interviewed in 2020, British Library catalogue reference: C1828/08, Track 5.

[8] Nicholas Watts interviewed in 2019-2020, British Library catalogue reference: C1828/14, Track 9.

[9] Nicholas Watts interviewed in 2019-2020, British Library catalogue reference: C1828/14, Track 9.

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