Farmland Birds in Winter

Our son’s partner recently visited Hope Farm in Cambridgeshire as part of her environmental MSc. The RSPB are running the farm to show that it is possible to successfully produce food and make a profit whilst still being a valuable place for wildlife. Additionally, as they work out how best to do this, they are developing new farming practices to share with other farmers. Since they took over the farm in 2000, they have recorded a 226% increase in breeding birds and also have many times more wintering farmland birds.

0027.Hope Farm

One of the things that they are doing is ensuring that there are seed-rich crop areas to support birds through the winter and their approach certainly seems to be working –  in January 2001, Hope Farm counted 534 birds of 30 species. In January 2016, they counted 2,933 birds of 48 species. That’s a really heartening improvement.

I have been reading up about Hope Farm to see if there are things that we could be doing here in the meadows to help our birds through the lean times of winter. We are not growing crops for them but are continuing to put a seed mix down on the strip throughout the whole year.  However,  I am not sure that we are reaching our target audience:

Trail camera
Magpies, Woodpigeon and Pheasant
Trail camera
Crows and Pheasant

Most of the food is being quickly hoovered up by Magpies, Crows, Woodpigeons and Stock Doves and, once it gets dark, the Foxes move in to finish off anything remaining. The smaller birds do not get much of a look in and the large flocks of Linnets that were here through the summer have now gone elsewhere to find food, as they have disappeared every previous winter as well.

The Farmland Bird Indicator monitors the populations of nineteen farmland bird species and, from 1970 to 2007, there was an overall 48% decline. This 48% can be broken down by species in this interesting list below:

Tree Sparrow -94%
Corn Bunting -90%
Turtle Dove -89%
Grey Partridge -87%
Yellow Wagtail -73%
Starling -68%
Linnet -58%
Lapwing -58%
Yellowhammer -54%
Skylark -51%
Kestrel -35%
Reed Bunting -27%
Whitethroat +5%
Greenfinch +23%
Rook +41%
Stock Dove +55%
Gold Finch +64%
Woodpigeon +125%
Jackdaw +136%

Although this list is now somewhat out-of-date, we want to be supporting birds towards the top of this list with the seed that we are putting down in the meadows.


With this in mind, a few days ago, we put this cage on the strip to preserve some of the seed from being eaten by the more dominant larger birds and give smaller birds the chance to get at it.

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Looking promising – Crows peering in at the uneaten seed
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A Badger trundles up but cannot get at the seed
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The cage is supplied with short pegs to go into the ground. This Fox pushed the cage aside, pulling the pegs from the ground, and ate the seed.

Well, it is early days for this experiment. We have longer pegs or even screw-in pegs – I am sure that we will be able to stop the Foxes getting to the seed. However, of more concern is that we are yet to see a small bird go into the cage and I worry that they are finding the mesh size too small – there was an option to go for a larger mesh although I decided against it. But, should birds learn to go into the cage, my plan is to get a few of them and then be able to more effectively deliver seed to small farmland birds through the winter.

Another way to support birds over the winter is to provide bird boxes as sheltered places  in which to roost.


We had a large number of boxes up around the meadows, some of which have been unused for several years. The lack of bird droppings in them suggests that, as well as not being used for nesting, they also are not being used as winter roosts.

Therefore, we have now transferred these boxes across to the wood to see how they get on there:



We have also increased the variety of bird food that we are putting out in the wood:

Niger Seed and two ‘Squirrel Buster’ feeders: sunflower heart and peanut. The weight of a Squirrel on the feeder brings an outer sheath down to close off the dispenser holes.
Squirrel proof suet ball feeder

We have had fantastic news about the farm that surrounds the wood and that you can see in the background of the photo above. It has recently changed hands and the new owner is taking it out of agriculture and managing it for wildlife, planning to plant thousands of trees and creating a lot of new hedgerow. It is going to be so interesting to see how this project progresses over the next few years and how it impacts on the wood.

The wood, looking so very lovely at this time of year

At any one time, we have a lot of trail cameras in operation, all of varying ages and states of repair. Sometimes it feels like we are running a trail camera hospital here dealing with many patients with various ailments that need nursing along. Recently we decided to consign several of the worst cases into final retirement and buy some more.

The new camera in the Beech Grove in the wood is a Victure and only cost about £30. Although it may be of some use to keep an eye on what is generally about, its daytime picture quality isn’t terribly good and we wouldn’t buy another of these:

Fox hunting rodents – the night time quality is not bad


Squirrel carrying a sweet chestnut kernel

Another of the new cameras is a Bushnell Core Cam with No Glow infra-red. This camera was expensive at about £200 and would be good to use for animals such as Deer that are sensitive to the low red glow that most of the cameras give out when taking an infra red picture in the dark. However, the downside is that the quality of the night time photo is not so good with a No Glow camera:

Foxes taken with a Bushnell Core No Glow infra red camera
Trail camera
As a comparison, Foxes taken with one of our normal Crenova cameras

Having now tried several other makes and types of camera, we have returned once again to the opinion that we are best off with the Crenova trail cameras that cost around £70.  These cameras are reasonably cheap, reasonably reliable, of reasonable quality and we are very familiar with them, having got through many of them over the years.

The female Pheasant is still in the meadows and becoming quite a familiar figure:




Trail camera

She doesn’t have the worry of being shot here and she is too large to have to be concerned about Sparrowhawks, but she does need to be very careful of Foxes:

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It seems that she has had another lucky escape because she reappears half an hour later:

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The Heron continues to turn up here far too often for our liking:

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We have now strung a grid of string over the pond as a Heron deterrent to save our Frogs and Newts:


The Heron will always land on the grass and walk into the pond. This string grid will not allow it to wade into the centre of the pond. We hope that it will be restricted to only one square of the grid and the amphibians in the other squares will be protected from it. At the same time, the Foxes and Badgers will still be able to use the pond for drinking.

Is this going to be good enough? We are not sure but we have put some cameras on it to see how the Heron copes with it the net time it visits.

This morning, however, we see that practically every string has been chewed and cut. The cameras didn’t catch anything red-handed but we have our suspicions:

Trail camera

Trail camera

Obviously we are going to have to have a small rethink.

Here is a Fox going over the gate at one o’clock in the morning:

Trail camera

and here is one eating some peanuts that I put on the new stone pile:


Finally today, there is this large Gull. I am not an expert by any means on Gulls and got the bird book out to try to properly ID this bird:



My conclusion is that this is surely a second winter juvenile Herring Gull. These large Gulls don’t reach maturity until their fourth year and their feathers pass through many stages on the way there and this can be used to age them. Actually all very interesting and I must make more of an effort to spot and learn the differences between them.




















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