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Wildlife recovery stopped in its tracks

A wildlife success story could fail within a year if more farmland is cultivated reducing food and shelter for farmland birds, the RSPB is warning.

The rare stone-curlew, one of England’s most elusive birds, has thrived on farmland called set-aside, which has also helped declining skylarks, yellowhammers, lapwings and barn owls.

Set-aside – land on which wheat, barley and other food crops cannot be grown – will be scrapped next year but the government has no plans to replicate its benefits despite its 2020 target to reverse farmland bird declines.

Environment Secretary Hilary Benn will today (September 3) consider conservationists’ pleas for replacement measures. The RSPB fears he will choose to ignore them.

Dr Sue Armstrong Brown, the RSPB’s Head of Countryside Conservation, said: “The loss of set-aside with no replacement is about the worst thing that could happen to stone-curlews and other farmland birds, at the worst possible time.

“More than a quarter of stone-curlew chicks are raised on set-aside and far more skylarks nest on set-aside than on fields with crops. In winter, set-aside becomes a giant bird table for many species including skylarks, corn buntings and linnets.

“All of these birds have government action plans to boost their numbers but none are likely to hit recovery targets if set-aside goes unless its benefits are reproduced by other means.

“Set-aside was never intended as a conservation measure but has turned out to be a boon for wildlife. When gains like these are so few and far between, we cannot afford to dismiss them so easily.”

Ten years of work to help stone-curlews led to the bird hitting its 2010 recovery target of 300 breeding pairs, five years early.

The species suffered one of the most spectacular declines of all wildlife after the Second World War because the bare or sparsely covered fields it used for nesting disappeared.

Set-aside became compulsory in 1992 as part of the Common Agricultural Policy, to reduce Europe's grain mountains.

When set-aside was cut from 15 per cent of farmland to five per cent in 1996, the most recent large-scale change, farmland bird numbers dropped by five per cent. On top of a 40 per cent decline in three decades, that loss now could devastate many species.

The RSPB is urging Defra to ensure the wildlife benefits of set-aside in England are replaced. In the short term, subsidies paid to farmers should be conditional on leaving a small area of land fallow. In the longer term, there should be more money invested in green farming schemes.

Dr Armstrong Brown said: “Millions of people rejoice in the songs of the skylark and yellowhammer, the tumbling of the lapwing and the eerie silence of the hunting barn owl.

“These birds are part of our countryside just as much as the views or the colours or the seasons. To forgo what we have salvaged now would be unforgivable. Farmers are committed to helping reverse farmland bird declines but cannot do so without a government prepared to back them.”

Cath Harris | alfa
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