For those of you who don’t know me (or haven’t read the About page!), I am a farm vet and wildlife photographer. As such, two things very close to my heart are British farming and wildlife, and I can’t help but feel that farmers in this country get a raw deal when it comes to the public’s perception of their views on wildlife. A lot of people seem to think that being a farmer is incompatible with liking, being interested in or even respecting wildlife; my day to day work shows me otherwise. So what better to write about for my first ever blog post than my experience of wildlife and farming? Maybe I can shed a little light on this seldom considered aspect of farming in Britain.
Contrary to a commonly held opinion, farmers don’t hate wildlife, and don’t want to exterminate the badgers. Very often, when I tell farming clients that I do wildlife photography, their first response is “Oh, you should come here at dawn/dusk/some godforsaken hour of the morning only farmers (and wildlife photographers!) get up at and see the owls nesting/hares boxing/woodcock feeding”. They are not only superbly aware of the wildlife on their land, they enjoy its presence, and often have a wealth of knowledge on the subject.
A couple of weeks ago I was chatting to a herd manager and he showed me a photo on his phone of a barn owl he had seen that morning. He then casually dropped this bombshell into the conversation: “And I saw the first cuckoo of the year today. Noisy blighters (he used a ruder word) but I wouldn’t change them. Means Spring’s here.” Yes, I was jealous. No, I’ve never seen one. Yes, I will be staking out his garden.
Other farmers on my patch guard their nesting birds carefully, protecting them from predators. Some monitor the birds on their land in conjunction with the RSPB, recording every sighting. One farmer left an old barn standing, even though he never used it and it was taking up space, purely because barn owls nested in it every year. As he put it, “Barn owls have been nesting there since before I was a boy. Who am I to turf them out?” (The land was sold for grazing when the farmer got too old to manage it, then immediately re-sold to a developer, who knocked down the barn and claimed no knowledge of the barn owls).
Some protection for wildlife is a legal requirement for any farmer. Sort of. The legislation covering the environment, and specifically wildlife, on farms in the UK has become more and more vague. Set-aside, the practice of leaving a percentage of land fallow for which the farmer received a subsidy, was abolished in 2008. Farmers can still leave land fallow, but it is at their own cost, and they are trying to run a business. There are fixed dates when hedges and trees cannot be cut, to protect nesting birds, and controls on the burning of heather and other upland plants. A 2m cover strip must be left either side of hedgerows and watercourses, and farmers must protect wild birds, eggs and nests on their land. And that is it. That is all the legal protection our wildlife gets. Oh, and farmers can apply for a derogation to not do any of the above things if they want to.
I think it is pretty obvious that if all our farmers were doing the bare minimum required to get their payments, British wildlife would be in a far worse state than it is currently. But it isn’t. Because farmers do more than required, every day, 365 days a year, to make sure that the wildlife on their patch continues to thrive. They plant trees, they manage the land, they work with conservation charities such as GWCT, they participate in the Big Farmland Bird Count, they leave buildings that provide nesting sites for kestrels, owls, swallows, sparrows and martins, and they do all of this alongside the hefty day-to-day work of running a farm.
The result? We have a wonderful depth and diversity of wildlife. Our countryside remains beautiful and purposeful, and we get high quality, locally produced food (with better animal welfare, I believe, than anywhere else in the world – but that’s a whole other topic!). And purely selfishly, I get to see a host of wonderful creatures which wouldn’t survive without well-managed farmland, all whilst driving around doing my day job.
Examples of agricultural conservation projects: http://www.ukagriculture.com/conservation/farmland_conservation_biodiversity.cfm?Project_type=Wildlife&intro=no
Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust:
Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group: