10 Feb 2016
Now, during these cold, wet, miserable winter months, we wrap up well and retreat into our warm homes, shutting out the weather, dreaming of springtime.Sparse birdsong, the trees bare of leaves, the ground cold and wet, the skies leaden and threatening rain, sleet and snow.
We, wrongly, assume that the rest of the world does the same.
But look a little closer, a little deeper, see that there is plenty going on around, above and below us.
Even in broad daylight young tawny owls can be heard and seen, seeking out new territories.
Animal tracks can be found, leading from the straw sheds to the woods as badgers start preparing their setts for the breeding season.
Foxes bark, call and shriek, eerie in the darkness.
Barn Owls screech noisily, their calls bouncing and echoing around the cattle sheds in the early morning gloom.
Bringing back Barn Owls from the brinkSheepdrove Organic Farm has worked with the Barn Owl Conservation Network for 20 years, and in this time has seen barn owls breed, successfully and consistently, on the farm thanks to improvement in habitat and the provision of hand-made multiple purpose built nest sites.
When Sheepdrove started working with the BOCN, over twenty years ago, it was clear that these birds were critically endangered and on the IUCN red list which is the highest priority classification. Their decline was mostly due to changes to modern farming practices, which removed habitats, breeding sites and consequently diminished prey availability. Crop spraying with insecticides and herbicides and the removal of vast swathes of hedges contributed hugely to the problem.
Many years of hard work, education and commitment from conservation farms and organic farms like Sheepdrove have been largely responsible for this undoubted success story.
2014 was our best year to date, with 7 successful broods. Licensed handlers are already on site, carrying out maintenance and repairs to the owl boxes in preparation for the forthcoming season.
We are delighted to see that the Barn Owl has just been re-classified as a green listed species, according to the December report of ‘Birds of Conservation Concern 4’.
This also means that the breeding population of Barn Owls is stable for the first time after many decades of decline- something definitely worth celebrating.
Farmland birds thrivingAway from the ‘nightlife’, there are many breeds of birds using Sheepdrove Farm for nesting, feeding and shelter. While out on the rounds, helping to clean the owl boxes, we stopped to watch as over two hundred lapwings, accompanied by several hundred golden plover, were flying, calling and feeding in some of the fields. Worryingly, Lapwing, an iconic farmland bird, are still on the red list of endangered birds.
The hedges were a rippling, noisy mass of corn buntings- flitting quickly from the shelter of the hedges to the over-wintered stubble to feed, then returning noisily. These innocuous little brown birds have suffered the same fate as the Lapwing, also on the red list because of changes to farming practices. We are delighted that they are at Sheepdrove, but it is no coincidence!
Future-proof farmingLeaving stubble in arable fields over winter, leaving grassy, species-rich field margins, never using chemicals and maintaining, planting and not-over trimming hedges, has allowed these iconic farmland birds to return and breed at Sheepdrove in ever-increasing numbers.
We are also working hard to encourage Grey Partridge to breed, but this shy bird is difficult to spot, and although we have a few coveys here on the farm, we’re keen to help them further, as they are suffering a precipitous decline in the UK, due to the same old story, loss of farmland habitat and food with which to feed their young.
Grey Partridge chicks depend on grassy, scruffy margins, rich in insect biodiversity in order to survive. We have an abundant supply of suitable terrain but the numbers are still worryingly small. However, we’ve started a program of feeding the adults over winter, hopefully boosting their health and body condition so that they can enter the breeding season in fine fettle, ready to start a brood.
Many farmers have followed suit and are doing great work, but without the provision of the habitat and the cessation of spraying, the future of the grey partridge is in the balance.