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Rippingale nature columnist reflects on best farms to see wildlife

In my experience, some of the best farms for wildlife are those that are managed for game and shooting, writes Rippingale nature columnist Ian Misselbrook.

An excellent example of this is a farm where I do my breeding bird survey (BBS) for the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). The farmer was a shooting enthusiast who employed a full time gamekeeper. Gamekeepers get a lot of flack from conservationists who often depict the as enemies of all wildlife especially birds of prey.

But this gamekeeper, in common with many others I have met, loved wildlife and enthused about the red kites and buzzards that nested on the farm as well as the peregrines that nested in a nearby quarry. Of course, his work was judged by the number of pheasants and partridges that were available during the shooting season but his efforts to build up the number of game birds benefited a host of other wildlife. His boss, the farmer, a very keen shooter, was also very keen to see diverse wildlife on his farm and created some wonderful habitats to achieve this aim. He had flower rich meadows in the less productive areas of the farm, well maintained hedgerows and grass margins around every field.

Common snipe. Photo: Ian Misselbrook
Common snipe. Photo: Ian Misselbrook

The breeding birds on the farm included species generally rare in the area such as corn buntings and quails as well as good numbers of more common farmland species such as whitethroats, yellowhammers and linnets. Situated on soil overlying limestone, in common with much of our area, the field edges and grass margins were colonised by limestone loving wildflowers, which in turn attracted a good variety of insects including valuable pollinators such as bees, hoverflies and butterflies. I also survey the butterflies on the farm which included three species of skipper as well as common blue and brown argus butterflies.

I often told myself how lucky I was to be able to survey such a wildlife rich farm, until that is a few years ago. Tragically the farmer became seriously ill and he was unable to continue farming. This resulted in the farm being taken over by a farming company. I don’t blame the manager as he is not paid to improve or maintain the aesthetics of the land, but to make it as profitable as possible.

The net result was a huge shock to me as on my return to the farm in spring I found that the grass margins had been ploughed out and the fields enlarged to produce edge to edge winter wheat. Furthermore, a small wood had been clear felled, ash die back given as the excuse and the floristically rich grass areas also ploughed out. The wildlife on the farm plummeted and although I still conduct the surveys, the experience is far less pleasurable.

Ian Misselbrook
Ian Misselbrook

So, shooting interests and wildlife often go hand in hand; but not always. My gripe is that the list of game birds that can be legally shot has not been reviewed for over 40 years and some species that are still widely shot for sport are in serious decline. The two that concern me today are woodcock and snipe. In the 1980’s almost every wood local to me held breeding pairs of woodcock. I loved to visit these woods at dusk to watch and listen to the display flights of these beautiful birds which is called roding. The birds fly around their nesting territory emitting a series of croaking sounds and high pitched squeaks. Today there are no breeding birds and because the wintering population is augmented by migrants from continental Europe, most people are under the impression that they are still common.

The recently published Birds of Lincolnshire cite winter shooting as the likely cause of their local extinction. Snipe can also still be legally shot even though no snipe have been recorded as nesting in Lincolnshire for at least six years. However, the good news is that some of the more enlightened shoots no longer shoot woodcock and snipe. In fact, one gamekeeper told me that on his shoot, heavy fines are levied on anyone who shoots these beautiful birds.

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