This year on the 10th of February Wimpole Estate took part in the Big Farmland Bird Count. Conditions were cold and overcast and the locations were surveyed between 2.30 and 4 p.m. However, instead of just recording in areas where there was bird food provided either by standing crops or thrown out, we decided to also include some areas without some form of food for a reference. Below is a short description of what we saw and the type of crops/field preparation.
This area was composed of several large fields of two-year organic clover ley that had not been topped/cut. On the day Peter Franklin counted 4 blackbirds, 1 buzzard, 1 carrion crow, 1 fieldfare, 6 meadow pipits, 1 pheasant and 3 short eared owls. In fact there have been up to eight short eared owls over the winter plus a couple of barn owls, a number of kestrels, buzzards, a pair of kites and a few sparrow hawks. This type of farmland habitat seemed to suit the raptors probably because the short-tailed voles had been doing very well on these fields.
Rectory farm, the Mare furlong
As a comparison I did a second bird count along the Mare Way where the field had been cultivated but did have a small standing plot of spelt wheat (almost depleted of seed though) there weren’t so many birds seen here: 2 carrion crows, 2 corn buntings, 1 kestrel, 2 magpies, 12 meadow pipits and 1 short eared owl in the distance near the clover ley. Rather poor, but when plot (400 m2) had more abundant ears of wheat I did see more reed buntings and yellow hammers along with some corn buntings and there were also quite a few pheasants and French partridge. One problem with this plot was the situation, it was in the centre of the field which meant the small birds could have easily been picked off by the sparrow hawks. Better to put bird food plots near tall hedges to provide easy cover to dash to in the event of a murderer at large, namely Mr Sparrowhawk.
Cobbs Wood Farm
This year the farm had a supply of tail wheat and barley from the seed dressing; we had four tons to use this winter and elected to throw the seed along the track with an adjacent hedge at Cobbs Wood Farm. Two very dedicated volunteers braved the cold weather and counted 4 blackbirds, 20+ chaffinches, 2 dunnocks, 2 magpies, 1 reed bunting, 1 robin, 20+ yellowhammers. This seemed about right for what we normally saw although some days the starlings, crows, blackbirds, wood-pigeon and pheasants also took advantage of the easy pickings. Just goes to show you that, with a little thought, the waste seed can be used to good effect plus the general public using the track get to see an abundance of wild birds. Incidentally we also feed the house sparrows at Cobbs Wood Farm which has also proved very effective.
Cambridge Road Farm 1
This year the farm staff left the NOCC trial plots which had a variety of corn crops from oats, barley, wheat to maze and linseed amongst others. Two more volunteers counted 10 corn buntings, 1 heron, 1 pheasant, 4 reed buntings, c.40 wood pigeons and 15 yellowhammers. This was a usual number although some days there would be triple this number. On other occasions that I visited the plot there was a pair of grey partridge and sometimes a barn owl hunting the mice and voles in the corn crop. This was the best winter feeding plot especially because there were so many corn buntings.
Cambridge Road Farm 2
The second survey location these volunteers surveyed was at a field junction by South Avenue and was plough land but had been winter stubble. Birds seen were 1 blackbird and 2 robins. Previously the winter stubble quite often had a fair number of other foraging wild birds like the yellow hammers and corn buntings.
The first survey I did was rather on winter sown wheat with a hedge on the margin. Bird food was scarce but there were some teasels which goldfinches love – just as well as there was little else to see and what I did see was more to do with the hedge rather than the winter wheat. Spotted: 3 blackbirds, 3 goldfinches, 2 wood-pigeons and 1 wren.
So, from my observations over the years you need winter stubble, some bird food plots and if there’s some unwanted corn then this can be used as a supplementary feed. Pastures and unmown lets also prove very valuable and at night when out shooting rabbits we always see woodcock and snipe feeding on the clover/grass leys.
It is also very noticeable that the block farming (200 acres of either plough or leys or crop sown) is not conducive to helping the farmland birds so I would advocate mix cropping i.e. on each farm unit instead of being all plough or all turned to clover/grass leys or sown with crops we should have all these elements plus stubble, seed plots and if possible supplementary feeding . Organic farming at Wimpole has improved the wild bird population but it could be greatly increased with a little thought.