February's talk at the Louth Area Group of the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust, was given by Nicholas Watts, MBE. Nick has farmed at Vine House Farm, near Spalding, since 1964, where he has been one of those all to rare creatures, a farmer who is also a serious conservationist with a passion for wildlife.
Many years ago Nick realised that key to maintaining a flourishing bird population on his land was their food supply and when visitors saw the abundance of birds around his farmyard where he had scattered grain and asked if they could buy some birdseed from him, Nick put two and two together and created a new direction for the farm business. A significant part of Vine Farm now revolves around the growing ans selling of grains and seeds for bird food.
Nick showed us how many of the changes in farming practice over the past half century have conspired to produce an environment much less favourable to many bird species. This area of the fenland is almost entirely devoted to arable crops, but decades ago mixed farming was the rule with most farms having some cattle, pigs and poultry, housed in old buildings that provided nest sites and opportunities for birds to reach grain stores and wet areas where insects could breed. Away from the farmyard, changing cropping patterns have meant less food and nesting opportunities in the fields. The use of agrochemicals, fungicides, herbicides, insecticides and growth regulators have conspired to produce an environment hostile to the whole food web on which all birds depend, but those that eat insects are particularly hard hit. Even many of the birds we see eating seeds on our feeders, need insects to feed to their young in the spring. There are some winners, the herbivorous wood pigeon and the magpie that lives off roadkill.
Nick demonstrated how, often quite simple, things he has done on his farm have had a big impact, yet have fitted into the farm's need to operate commercially. Subsidies through the Stewardship scheme have allowed wildflower strips to be planted around field margins. Skylark plots, uncultivated squares within cereal fields to allow safe nesting, may help the birds but provide the farm with an income slightly greater than the value of the crop foregone! Nick has had ancient brick barns repaired, for the benefit of nesting barn owls, with help from money from the wind-farm. He has built brick tower nest-boxes for owls and other birds and his numerous nest-boxes near a pond have had a phenomenal positive impact on the tree-sparrow population. Nick has influenced the drainage board to manage dyke banks in a way that is better for wildlife and is cheaper. A win-win!
Of course buying bird seed helps the business, but Nick's case that improving the food supply is key to maintaining flourishing bird populations is unanswerable. Asked whether he was optimistic about the future, Nick pointed out that, whatever their views, only a very small proportion of the country's population actively engage in conservation work, and farmers are no different. The vast majority of farms are not operated in a way that prioritises wildlife, so he is pessimistic about future prospects.
Vine House Farm has a wonderfully informative website. If you are not shopping, skip past the opportunities to buy the bird food and read about the history of the farm, what has been done to enhance the habitats and learn about how large scale cereal farming on a commercial fenland farm can operate alongside a thriving bird population.