Bird numbers indicate healthy farm biodiversity

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28 January 2022, UK: Farmers using conservation agriculture establishment techniques could show the system’s potential for a huge environmental uplift during this year’s Big Farmland Bird Count, taking place in February. The presence of birds feeding on the ground is a clear indication of the health of farm ecosystems.

Results of over three years successive monitoring on farms, as part of the Syngenta Conservation Agriculture & Sustainable Farming Initiative, has shown up to 1000%+ higher bird numbers over the winter on fields established with conservation agriculture systems, compared to conventional plough cultivations.

The independently monitored research is studying the field-scale agronomic, economic and environmental implications of conservation agriculture establishment systems on contrasting light land, at East Lenham in Kent, and the heavy soils of Loddington in Leicestershire. 

On the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) Allerton Project farm, at Loddington, areas established with conservation agriculture techniques recorded an average 1011% more birds over the winter, compared to crops established with conventional plough-based tillage.

At East Lenham in Kent, the average numbers of birds recorded on the ground over the past three winters was 145% higher in fields established by direct drill/light till.   

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Bird numbers were monitored once a month on the different establishment system throughout the winter, with transects walked across each area to count birds on the ground. Numbers recorded were the annual average seen on each system.

Results of detailed monitoring over the years of the ongoing project has confirmed the trend towards improved soil health and biodiversity with conservation agriculture techniques, reported Syngenta Sustainable Farming Manager, Belinda Bailey.

“Bird numbers are likely to be attracted to more favourable winter-feeding resources associated with min till or direct drill crop establishment systems, where food remains on or close to the surface.”

“Higher bird activity is a very positive indicator of biodiversity in fields under conservation agriculture,” she highlighted.

GWCT ecologist, John Szczur, responsible for the project’s bird monitoring in Kent, reported that numbers of all the insect and seed feeding bird species recorded were higher on the conservation agriculture plots at East Lenham last winter. That included over two and a half times as many skylarks and double the number of meadow pipits as on conventionally established plots. Snipe, grey partridge and red-legged partridge were only recorded on the direct drill areas or cover crops in the conservation agriculture system.

In previous years, GWCT monitoring has seen up to 55 skylarks on conservation agriculture established plots at Loddington, compared to just four on the conventionally established areas. Skylark numbers were significantly lower across all systems in the very wet winter of 2019/20, had recovered well on the conservation agriculture systems last year – although still with no sightings on the conventionally established plots.     

The Syngenta conservation agriculture research has also given an in-depth study of earthworm numbers under different establishment systems, monitored by GWCT. Results have seen consistently higher numbers of earthworms – an important source of food for some bird species – under both direct drill and min till establishment, compared to conventional tillage.

Earthworm numbers have responded most positively on the light soils in Kent, with an average 75% more with direct drill over conventional tillage, but from a relatively smaller base. At Loddington, where earthworm numbers were typically 10 times greater in the heavier soils, the increase from conservation agriculture was 8%.  

Endogeic earthworms that typically live below the top surface have fared particularly well under a min-till establishment system at Loddington, highlighted Belinda Bailey.

“That could be because the system incorporates organic matter into the surface layers that makes it more accessible as food, without disturbing the worm’s habitat.”

Establishment using a direct drill or light tillage had also seen significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and the carbon footprint of growing crops, she added. “Reduced operational costs with the system has contributed to an average 36% increase in overall net profit on the light land and 19% increase on the heavy soils, compared to conventional tillage.” 

Mrs Bailey pointed out that both farms involved with the project also have extensive ecological areas and field margins positively managed to provide environmental resources.

The GWCT Big Farmland Bird Count takes place from 4 – 20 February 2022. Farmers’ involvement in the count provides an unprecedented insight into the health and populations of farmland birds. It involves counting birds on one spot on a farm over a 30 minute period, and reporting the results.

Last year some 2500 counts were reported, covering an area of over a million hectares across the UK. A full information pack, guidance and report sheet are available from the Big Farmland Bird Count website. 

Yorkshire farmer, Richard Bramley, highlighted that the annual count gives him the opportunity to track bird populations on his farm, “because a healthy bird population is an indication of a healthy farm,” he added.

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