Modern Farming and wild birds

200 years of farming and its effect on birdlife

 Quick Index 
Buying Direct
Area index

For most people in Britain and Ireland the countryside that they are most likely to see and visit will be farmland. This article looks at lowland farmland - both arable and pasture - as one of the most altered habitats within Britain over the last century. Many of its characteristic birds have suffered major declines over the last 30 or 40 years and the changes for the Human population have been drastic too. Upland habitats are often just as much farmland as lowland areas but these are not addressed here.

Farmland is an entirely Man-made habitat which has evolved over the last few thousand years - but never so fast as recently. It has replaced all sorts of natural habitat mostly involving the destruction of woodlands and wetlands. Most of the rolling fields we see now were once covered in woodland and many of the flat areas were wetlands - either carr where trees predominated, reed-beds, open water or saltmarsh.  These natural habitats each had their own rich assembly of breeding birds that had gradually evolved over many thousands and thousands of generations. The birds that found a home on farmland had aspects of their lives which suited them to the new conditions. Many of these were birds of the woodland edge which were able to utilise the hedges and copses, others were birds open country that colonised the open fields. In Ireland pasture has always predominated and the potato famine, last century, was the defining moment in recent history.

However farmland, as we think we know it this century over much of Southern Britain, is very different from what we would have found three or four hundred years ago. Before the enclosures boundary hedges were rather rare. They were generally only there to mark important boundaries between parishes, around parkland and along drove ways. Cultivated land was tilled by hand, with horses or with cattle drawing the plough. Cattle, sheep and pigs were grazed under the supervision of men and boys and so did not need hedges to keep them in one place. Very often common land, sometimes woodland, was used for pasture. The number of people employed on the land was huge and it looked - and was - very different from now. Land holdings were large but the rural economy depended, to a very large extent, on the Human resource so that the large land owners had to keep their villages going and were not able to run their farming enterprises by buying bigger and better machinery!

In the Middle Ages the major event was the Black Death, starting in 1348, which reduced the numbers of people available to till the land and led directly to the rise of the sheep. This led to a certain amount of enclosure and to tremendous increase in wealth in some areas - visible still through large and magnificent churches in many areas dating back to this time. In the North and West the open field system, without hedges, was not normal but this system was normal over the South and East. They would have favoured open country species like Grey Partridge, Lapwing and Skylark. They were replaced by the main Parliamentary enclosures leading to small field with hedges as boundaries. The first of these started almost 300 years ago and carried on for about 150 years. Most of the areas were already arable but about a third were not - about three million hectares were involved and the enclosures took place mainly from 1760 to 1815.

At about the same time the arable cultivation system was transformed by the idea of the Norfolk and, later, other rotations. Instead of a third of the land being left fallow and without a crop each year to recover its fertility a four yearly succession of different types of crop enabled the farmer to obtain useful production each year. The classic rotation was clover for fodder and fertility, wheat, roots for cleaning the crop and barley. This also shifted the focus of arable farming from heavier clay soils to lighter soils where the rotation worked well. The changes to the avifauna over this period would have been immense particularly as the system of hedges criss-crossing the countryside developed and matured. In particular birds from the woodland edge would have been able to exploit a much wider are of the arable land as the hedges spread.

At the start of this century horse power still reigned supreme although there were steam ploughing and threshing machines in operation and, in some places, oxen were still used. There were still very large numbers of people involved with farming although the seeds of the farming slump of the 1920s and 1930s had been sown 20 years earlier with free trade allowing cheap and high quality food to capture what were purely domestic markets. During the slump many fields were not planted with crops and grassland - of various types - comprised over 80% of farmland. The changes in use of the areas of farmland, stocking rates and yields are listed in the tables which are from O'Connor and Shrubb (1986).


ENGLAND  Pasture  Rough grass  Arable
  100,000 ha
 Late 1800s  41.5  11.6  54.7
 Early 1930s  54.9  18.2  35..4
 Early 1960s  39.0  13.1  52.2
 Early 1980s  31.8  10.1  52.7
 SCOTLAND  Pasture  Rough grass  Arable
 Late 1800s  4.4  43.1  14.0
 Early 1930s  6.3  44.7  12.3
 Early 1960s  3.5  50.2  13.8
 Early 1980s  5.6  42.6  11.2
 WALES  Pasture  Rough grass  Arable
 Late 1800s  7.1  5.7  4.5
 Early 1930s  8.5  8.7  2.5
 Early 1960s  7.0  6.6  3.4
 Early 1980s  8.4  5.3  2.6

 ARABLE  Cereals  Ley grass  Roots
 Late 1800s  38.2  17.4  15.0
 Early 1930s  20.5  15.9  10.5
 Early 1960s  30.3  25.9  10.4
 Early 1980s  39.2  16.3  7.4

 STOCK & YIELD  Cattle  Sheep  Wheat
  100,000 head   100,000 Tons/ha
 Late 1800s  60  296  2.02
 Early 1930s  73  253  2.02
 Early 1960s  107  281  3.87
 Early 1980s  117  317  6.05
Even since the early 1980s there have been huge changes with millions of cattle being slaughtered through the disaster of BSE and the rise and fall of set-aside. Whilst the changes over the last few thousand years have been rather gradual the changes this century driven by the economy, by politics and by technology have often been very swift.

They have altered the population levels and mix of species of birds over much of Britain and Ireland. Some of the major events were as follows:


The economic forces that affected agriculture up to a few years before the start of the Second World War tore the heart out of industry. The depression, affecting the Stock Market, was not the cause but the ability, through fiscal change and modern transport, of food manufacturers to import cheap food from abroad caused most producers severe difficulties. This happened way before the depression affected the Stock Market. Arable farmers were unable to produce quality wheat at prices which could compete with the grain provided by the huge fields in Canada and the United States. Dairy farmers were unable to produce milk for processing as butter and cheese to match the cheap, and good quality, product of New Zealand. And livestock farmers were in direct competition with excellent cheap lamb from New Zealand and beef from Argentina.

Things became slightly better for a few years at the end of the First World War when grain prices were guaranteed for a short time. The Depression compounded their problems as fewer and fewer people were able to afford to pay premium prices for home grown produce.

The effect on the industry was catastrophic. The table shows that the yield of wheat did not change over 50 or more years. There were few 'artificial' fertiliser, no clever chemicals to control pests, no new varieties of crop to allow regular autumn sowing, few tractors and no combine harvesters in general use. These 50 years did not see major developments to alter the crops and their, or the animals', husbandry. Things just got harder and harder for the farmers and, particularly, the farm workers. What was particularly difficult was that so many of the labourer's lived in tied cottages so that when, as many did, they lost their jobs they lost their homes as well. The lack of a market for their produce meant that the farmers had no hope of money from producing it and so much arable land lost to cultivation and became pasture or rough grass (see table). Yield of wheat remained the same over these years. The stocking rate also remained similar with the national cattle herd increasing by 22% and the sheep flock decreasing by 16% as the amount of pasture went up by 16%. There may have been effects on the birds but they are not likely to have been very important for many of them. The fields remained the same size, their hedges may have been cut less often and fewer were cultivated. The situation was about to start to change rapidly.


The farming industry began to recover before the war but the war, and the great need of the nation for home grown food, provided it with an enormous boost. The use of shipping to transport food from abroad had to be weighed against the use of the ships for oil, other raw materials, weapons and munitions. Farmers were encouraged and required to bring back their holdings from grass to arable and to plough up areas - like downland and meadows - to plant crops. This was supervised by the War Agricultural Committees. They knew their local areas well and put pressure on the landowners to do their bit. Some farmers already had tractors and were using bigger ploughs, cultivators, reapers and other machinery. Wet areas were drained for cultivation and production and productivity increased. Some bird species will have suffered where downs were ploughed and became arable fields rather than sheep walk and where marshes were drained and taken into cultivation. However the fields themselves remained very much as they had been for a long time. The weeds and insects within the crops providing food for the birds and many areas of winter stubbles and fallow land in the summer. The massive effects on the birds were about to start.


Chemical fertilisers were widely introduced in the 1930s but these were not the substances which were to alter, completely, the face of agriculture. As a direct result of the war new insecticides were introduced which provided the farming industry with the first in their present day armoury of chemical tools. The technicians were doing their bit as well. Big changes were being made with the introduction of new, and much bigger, machinery and newly developed varieties of crop and animal. This is the beginning, fifty years ago, of the rapid changes in agriculture and their effects on birds.

The first complex chemicals, with very long term effects, were the organo-chlorine compounds. These included DDT, Gamma-BHC, Aldrin and Dieldrin amongst others. They seemed - and were - life savers when they were introduced to kill the insect vectors of diseases transmitted by mosquitoes and other invertebrates. Their use in agriculture to control (kill) pests was an inevitable development.

Their persistence was also looked upon as a really positive factor. It meant that the time consuming and costly application process was not going to be needed so often. But the persistence proved to be an horrendous problem as the pesticides not only killed directly but also built up in the food chain.

Birds like Woodpigeons, Stock Doves and Pheasants died from, for instance, eating dressed seed. The seed eating birds which were slightly affected were not as fit as their cousins and were thus selected as their food by the predators. So, suddenly, the populations of Sparrowhawks and Peregrines crashed as the chemicals ingested in their food built up in their bodies. These birds also suffered as the chemicals interfered with their calcium metabolism and their eggshells became so thin that the eggs broke: even the weight of the incubating female caused them to collapse. Many of the adults seemed perfectly healthy but they are unable to breed. The birds disappeared from areas near and on farmland and the populations of upland birds were severely affected by the same chemicals being used in sheep dips. The chemicals were proved to be doing the harm after about ten years and were banned. Peregrines recovered after about 25 years and Sparrowhawks are back almost everywhere 30 years later.

But the effect of farm chemicals has caused so much more damage to the bird populations than the obvious and well publicised effects of the persistent organo-chlorine family in the 1960s. There have been (and still are) direct mortalities from chemicals old and new but the really staggering effect is on the ecology of farmland. A part of the primary productivity, the transfer of energy from the sun into life forms, always used to be outside the crop. Weeds grew in the fields, fungi grew on the crop, insects used the weeds and the crop plants and the birds ate them, and the weeds and their seeds in the winter. Now that has all changed. ALL the productivity in a field is directed to the crop. The fungi are controlled by fungicides, the weeds are controlled by herbicides and the insect pests by pesticides. It is little wonder that our farmland birds are suffering.

In 1997 I walked 600 metres down a tramline - where the wheels of the tractor go through the crop - in a field of wheat. The only plants I encountered were wheat except for four individual plants of goose grass. There were no visible insects and the birds were all around the field margin. The cropping rate for that wheat would now be in excess of the six tonnes per hectare average logged in the early 1980s - a three fold increase in 50 years. Were just 2% of that productivity, from just one hectare, to go for wildlife it would probably be able to sustain more than ten families of Skylarks through the year! The maths are simple 120 kg of wheat would provide 20,000 daily feeds of 6 gm. A pair of Skylarks might raise eight young but these ten birds would gradually dwindle to two again at the beginning of the next season - so, on average, a pair and its progeny would need about 2,000 daily feeds. This would be 100 pairs of Skylarks from a single 10 hectare field which would still produce over 60 tonnes of grain! Of course all the productivity going to wildlife would not be directed at the Skylarks but the birds are able to exploit, by eating them, plants and insects.

Soil invertebrates are also targeted by the chemicals and many suffer from compounds used for other purposes. Birds like Starlings, thrushes and Lapwings are particularly affected by these losses all through the year. The lack of insects in the crop and in the hedges round the crop, so often just as bare of life because of spray drift, is the reason that Grey Partridges have done so badly and have further effects. Many of the birds of farmland, whether the adults eat seeds or insects, rely on small and soft bodied invertebrates whilst they are feeding their small young. These changes spread through other crops but the use of herbicides was delayed in root crops as the earliest formulations were toxic to the crop plants.

Technical developments have solved these problems and now the rich assortment of weeds that used to grow amongst the sugar beet, mangolds and turnips is a feature of the distant past - and the large flocks of finches that used the resource have no crops where they can go.

In winter open ploughed land also provided these seed eating birds with a long-term food resource as there was a replenished seed-bank in the soil from the weeds - efficient herbicides have meant that this resource is now not replenished each year. Some weeds have seeds which can remain viable for many years - see how a miss in herbicide can cause a gash of red poppies across a field that has had none for 10 or 20 years. However the mass of useful seeds within the soil as food for the birds dwindles much more quickly. The best estimate is that the seed bank in arable land has dropped to less than a tenth of what it was 50 or 60 years ago - from 20,000 per square metre to a thousand or so.


Farming has been Man and machine trying to tame nature ever since the first digging sticks were used. The plough and the use of animal power tipped the balance away from nature but it was not until powered machinery started to be used, as a matter of course, that real changes began to make themselves rapidly apparent. The tractor for ploughing, the combine for harvesting and the sprayer for applying chemicals have enabled the work on the land to be done by fewer and fewer people. The percentage of the total population in England and Wales occupied in agriculture was still 20% in 1860 and had dropped to 3% by 1950 - and is still dropping.

There were further consequences from the use of big machinery - to operate at its best it needs a decent run at its tasks. There is no point in having big combines and then spending hours each day dismantling them to get the machinery into many little fields. Whip out the hedges - and gain a bit of land - but also one can run a very efficient pattern of cultivation throughout the year. Most of the farmland birds are related to the hedges and not to the open field and this has, inevitably, led to many birds declining as the available habitat has declined.

But, of course, this is not all. Hedges with trees could shed a branch into the crop and a combine driver, not keeping a proper lookout, might damage the machinery on it. This is not only an extra, and avoidable, expense but also deprives the farm of the use of a very expensive machine for hours (even days) for the short period that it is needed each year. Even the production of vegetables has been developed out of all recognition with huge machines making sure that the beds the roots are grown in are stone free. Many of them are also grown with the use of miles and miles of plastic mulch. The modern spraying machinery covers a bigger and bigger swathe of the crop and often spray drift affects the hedges. The plant diversity becomes impoverished and the insect diversity drops like a stone. This means that there is less food for the birds and a further factor causing declines.


There are many new crops which have been introduced in recent years. Some are obvious like the springtime yellowing of the countryside as oil-seed rape makes strides across it or, on light soils, the summer morning bright blue haze of the flowering linseed. Ripening and spilt seed from both these crops are excellent food for small birds but are normally only available for a short time each year. One consequence of the change to oil-seed rape has been the colonisation of some of the fields by nesting species like Reed Bunting and Sedge Warbler. These are often successful provided the ripe rape is desiccated and not mown before harvest. Maize, grown as a forage crop and also for cobs, and even sunflowers and lupins are grown as field crops. However just as different are the modern varieties of wheat and barley. They grow on shorter, stronger straw, whose growth may be chemically regulated, are bred not to shed their grain and many can be grown from autumn and not spring sowing. The hay meadows have been replaced by fields growing rye-grass for silage and cut earlier and earlier each year. An immediate consequence simply of the difference in timing of sowing is that there are millions of hectares less stubble and open ground available for the seed-eating birds to live on in the autumn and winter. The fields have been ploughed and planted in August or September and are green with the new crop over the winter. Indeed that crop becomes much denser than the old spring sown crops and is more difficult for the crop-dwelling birds to live in during the spring. Lapwings are unlikely to nest successfully and autumn-sown fields are shunned by breeding Skylarks who have any sparser alternatives in which to nest. However the problem in autumn and winter is compounded by the depletion of the food resource within the existing stubble. These are left in areas where spring sown crops are to be drilled or the field is to left to set-aside.

In times before combines picked up every last ear, even if the crop was laid, lots of the grain grown by the farmer was not harvested. Over ripe heads in the field shed their contents and it was very much worth the local people gleaning the stubbles for waste grain for their chickens. The spilt grain was a very useful resource for the wild birds too and species like Skylarks. The individual grains of wheat, for instance, are so big that a Skylark would only have to find 100 each day to stay alive. But, even without the spilt grain, there used to be lots of weed seeds available for the bird in the stubbles and these are down by over 90% on average. The search time needed to find food on many stubbles is probably now uneconomic and the unfortunate Skylark would need too long to find the food - in relation to the shortened daylight hours of winter - to be able to survive.

These, and other effects, are most notable in southern and eastern Britain but there consequences are also felt elsewhere. More and more areas are able to grow crops that used to be restricted to southern areas. This was because new varieties were introduced, produced by selective breeding, that were able to tolerate shorter growing periods and lower temperatures. Oil-seed rape, for instance, could only be grown in southern Britain but is now a common crop as far north as Inverness - even some on Orkney - and west to Wales and Ireland. Unnoticed by many people the grass being grown has also been developed so that it can be cut earlier and more often - luckily this has not affected the far west so that the Corncrakes of the Western Isles of Scotland and in Ireland have been spared.


To many people the idea that people charging across country, on horseback, chasing foxes or out shooting Pheasants might be important ecological factors actually helping bird populations might seem bizarre. Indeed on of the species logged as under severe threat is the Grey Partridge and yet the birds are doing best in areas where they are shot! The reason is very simple and, when you think about it, quite obvious. Farmers control the land for farming and they may just think of this as their objective. However many of them have other aims more or less in view. These may be to do with nature conservation or landscape but, over a very large area, they are to do with country sports. The features that are needed for good hunting, for Pheasants and partridges, for hares and for other ground game are very much in favour of the declining birds and insects.

In many areas the farm woodlands that remain have clearly been left standing as fox coverts - many are actually called Fox Covert - or as places for shooting. Hedges are retained and allowed to grow to a reasonable size. The whole management of the farm has a conservation dimension to it lacking from areas where there is no hunting or shooting interest. The worst farms are those where the top and bottom lines on the farming balance sheet are controlled by the accountant. This is often the case with farms bought some years ago by financial bodies such as pension funds. Farms which are run by the farmers who own them are much more likely to have their objectives softened to include shooting, conservation, landscape values etc.

All is not well with country pursuits and the practice of hunting, shooting and fishing will undoubtedly be modified either through the pressure of public opinion or through legislation. For instance shoots where tens of thousands of Pheasants are released into an unsympathetic intensive farming environment are pretty awful. The gamekeepers have problems in the crowded release pens and the birds do not provide sporting shots - just a mound of trophies. The local shoot here in Norfolk only releases about a thousand Pheasants each year onto about 1,500 hectares of excellent varied farmland from large release pens. They have no problem with avian predators as the poults have plenty of cover. The gamekeepers control ground predators and the farm has dozens of pairs of Lapwings, a thriving Stone Curlew population and at least six other species of waders. The small birds like Tree Sparrow and Linnet are doing well too. There are, of course, rogue gamekeepers who break the law and destroy protected species but, hopefully, they are a dying breed.

I am personally convinced that there should be better relations between the conservationist and shooters. The amount of money put into conservation - often unwittingly - by country landowners for hunting, shooting and fishing is considerable. Without the personal and pecuniary interest there is a very good chance that many of them would decide that they will join the accountants and run their farming operations to maximise their income. Possibly to use it on extended holidays abroad where they can follow their pastimes within the local law. Once lost the remaining patchwork of the British countryside would be unlikely to recover without an enormous amount of money being expended over many years.


It is impossible to look at the changes to our agricultural environment without considering the political pressures put on the farming community over the years. For instance the reason we have mint sauce with lamb is not just that it tastes nice! In Tudor times when the sheep was most valuable to the country as a provider of wool a law was passed that specified bitter herbs must be eaten with lamb - the least bitter was mint. I have already mentioned the international trade in agricultural produce and the impact of the two World Wars. I can also recall the startled reaction of the dairy industry when political considerations changed, at a stroke, the support given to the production of milk with no thought of the gestation period of the cow nor the fact that lactations last for many month. More recently the political force which moderates the industry has been the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

The effects produced by the CAP have been very fundamental and have distorted - and are distorting - farming practice within Britain and Ireland. Systems of support for production have led to farmers farming for the subsidies and thus to the beef and grain mountains and the wine and milk lakes. In turn these led to set-aside to cut down on production of cereals and quota systems for other commodities - like milk. Set-aside, areas that would otherwise be producing crops left unplanted, was to cut down production and not to help the environment. In the first year the instruction was given that the weeds should be cut some time after 15 May. In many cases this was taken as THE date and so countless ground nesting birds were unnecessarily killed. The date was later changed and environmental considerations were given proper thought.

Now a very small part of the multi-billion pound budget is firmly directed towards wildlife. In specified Environmentally Sensitive Areas money is channelled towards farmers entering into agreements for proper management of their land in keeping with its wildlife potential. In other parts - and by no means all - money is available for various types of Stewardship which involves the farmers in modifying their actions in favour of wildlife. This may be to make for bigger and better hedges, plant and maintain farm woodlands or even provide weed rich winter stubbles. Early in 1999 it was hoped that even more would be done when the CAP came up for review but hopes were dashed. The bast that can be said is that the reforms were so small that further reforms must come sooner rather than later. The escalating costs cannot continue and the alleged frauds are also unacceptable.

However the CAP is not the only, or most powerful, political operation set to mould our countryside. The World Trade Organisation (WTO) seems to be so very powerful that it can overturn national policies and torpedo international agreements. The implications of this can already be seen in the banana trade and will soon be obvious in other ways. For instance it seems likely that the EEC will not be allowed to keep genetically modified crops out and will not be able to ban imports of meat whose production does not conform to the EEC's own welfare rules. This has grave implications for pig farmers as the mid-west American pig farmers have access to cheap food and virtually no welfare legislation. They seem to be exploring the possibility of cornering the world market for pig meat.


Our farmland is in a sorry state for its birds and other wildlife. It is certainly not totally useless but it could quickly go that way if there are no changes of direction. The very real problem is that the monoculture within the crop is becoming purer and purer so that the amount of food available for the birds is being very much reduced. The introduction of certain genetically modified (GM) crops has very serious implications. These are the GM seeds which confer immunity from powerful herbicides allowing the GM crop to be sprayed and totally cleaned of weeds. In effect, for many species, the green field of crops will be just about as useful as a food resource as the concrete surface of an airport runway. This is simply a part of the evolution of agriculture towards more and more efficient utilisation of the primary productivity from the land by the crop. For farmers who are trying to make a living this is clearly the main concern.

However all is not lost. The public at large benefit from the wildlife of farmland and it seems reasonable for the farmers to receive payment for that part of the management of their land which goes towards the wildlife. This is already happening, to a small extent, through the CAP but it could be extended greatly. It would be much better for the farmer as the payment would be for doing positive good for our wildlife and not just a cheque for growing, efficiently or otherwise, crops that are not needed by society at large. Payments could be linked to public access, conservation headlands, beetle banks, management of hedges, spring sowing etc. They could even favour smaller farmers as opposed to the bigger 'barley barons'.

Organic farming may increase and benefit the birds but there is likely to be a much greater emphasis on 'safe foods' - driven by the consumer. This is already happening as the major supermarkets are imposing much more stringent pesticide residue levels on fruit and vegetables for their stores than are needed nationally. It may be that a special 'conservation' class of products which are produced by 'almost' organic methods may come to dominate the market. After all the spread of unleaded petrol was amazingly fast and many people buy free range eggs or have become vegetarian by conviction. Incidentally the further spread of non-meat eating could change the countryside a very great deal. Much of the cereal growth as well as most of the grass growing is for meat production and farming, as we know it, would cease over much of the countryside.

This scenario - farmers ceasing to farm - could come about from market forces as it did earlier this century. This might be excellent for wildlife if the farmers were paid to manage their land for the environmental benefits this could bring. However this could well not be the case and farmers would not want to lock the gate and throw the key away. In most areas scrub and then woodland would become established and farming could then only take place after the tress and bushes had been expensively grubbed out. The horrid vista that might be the outcome is field upon field of brown land as the fields are kept 'clean' by a dose of total herbicide every spring and autumn.

However there is one likely outcome if swathes of the countryside are to be taken out of food production. This is using the farmland to provide energy. Bio-diesel can be made from oil-seed rape. Alcohol can be produced from bacterial digestion of all sorts of crops. And the idea of growing short rotation coppice of willows to burn to provide electric power is already being tried. This, in particular, could provide excellent habitat for all sorts of birds and it would definitely change the look of the countryside. These are environmentally friendly means of producing energy as the plants recycle carbon dioxide and do not release the gas from fossil fuels. One of the most optimistic events of the last few years was the Government's announcement that the populations of our birds would be one of the 13 ways of measuring the 'Feel good factor'. Now they HAVE to do something about reversing the bird declines as their colours have been nailed to the mast!

Chris Mead 2000