In order for farmers to change their farm management to benefit declining farmland birds, they need to go through a process that includes increased ownership, acceptance, incentivization and technical information acquisition.
Awareness of the problem
Many farmers will claim, with some justification, that there are still lots of birds on their farm. However, until farmers accept that some species have declined, they are unlikely to act to prevent further declines. To address the lack of awareness, government and environmental organizations have used communication opportunities already used by the farming community, including agricultural publications (e.g. Farmers’ Weekly), farmer meetings, markets and shows (Christine Ward Agricultural Market Research 2001). Such communications have presented not only national statistics on population declines, which are not generally trusted by farmers, but also regional and local trends and examples of where birds have declined or disappeared on individual farms. The total loss from an area of a localized species, such as Lapwing, has been more readily accepted than the reduction in numbers of a species such as Skylark that is still relatively widespread. This approach has been successful across the UK and some 70% of farmers are now aware of the declines in farmland birds (Kynetec 2003).
Ownership of the problem
Among farmers who accept that there has been a significant decline in farmland bird populations, there remains a large proportion who believe that farming methods are not the cause of farmland bird declines. Fifty-five per cent of UK farmers still believe that predators, including corvids, Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus, Kestrel Falco tinnunculus, Buzzard Buteo buteo, Red Fox Vulpes vulpes, Badger Meles meles and feral/domestic cats Felis catus are responsible for the decline (Kynetec 2003). If farmers do not believe that their farming practices are largely responsible for the decline in farmland birds, then they are unlikely to change the way that they farm in order to benefit farmland birds.
In trying to get farmers to accept that agricultural changes have caused farmland bird declines, it has proved to be important to avoid being overly critical. Getting farmers to accept that the solution to the problem lies with them, and that things they can do on their farm will make a difference to farmland bird populations, is more likely to bring about change. This acceptance has been enhanced through positive publicity for good conservation work that farmers carry out. Awards such as the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group's (FWAG) Silver Lapwing Award, the English Nature/National Farmers’ Union Biodiversity Award and the RSPB's Operation Lapwing competition are good examples of encouraging a more positive profile for farmers within both the farming community and the wider public.
Incentive to tackle the problem
Not losing out financially is an important factor for many farmers in changing the way they farm. Financial incentives are an important motivator, particularly for more complex management prescriptions (Wilson et al. 2004). However, there is a wide range of other reasons why farmers are motivated to change their farming practices (Sutherland 2004). These include commercial or other game management; farm diversification (e.g. to support tourism); niche marketing of wildlife-friendly produce; public recognition of the value of what they do beyond food production; personal commitment to the countryside and custodian role; and to enhance their standing in the local community (e.g. through farm walks).
With good advice, measures can not only be integrated successfully into farm businesses, but actually benefit the business. For example, the establishment of grass margins can help to control Cleavers Galium aparine and Barren Brome Anisantha sterilis on headlands, thereby reducing the need for herbicide use. Increasingly, supermarkets and other retailers expect farmers to show evidence of environmental responsibility and brand their products accordingly (e.g. Tesco's ‘Nature's Choice’, Jordan's ‘Conservation Grade’ cereals).
To many farmers, conservation has come to mean hedge planting and pond creation: 32% of farmers have created new hedgerows and 24% have created a pond, but only 12% have implemented a whole farm conservation plan (Kynetec 2003). In order to get those who are aware of the plight of farmland birds and motivated to take appropriate action, farmers need good information on the most appropriate solutions. Ongoing information and support are usually required to help a farmer to deliver more complex management, rather than just one-off advice. For Higher Level ES, these issues will be addressed through the FEP, which evaluates the whole farm, the provision of guidance material and farm visits and demonstrations.
It is important that clear, succinct advice is produced for all involved with the countryside. Leaflets, booklets and websites have been developed, including an RSPB series on farmland birds and habitats available in printed form and on its website (http://www.rspb.org.uk/farming) and GCT information sheets on Grey Partridge, conservation headlands and set-aside. Farmers want clear, concise, practical information. Defra's guidance booklet for the ELS pilot was based largely on ‘bullet points’ and was well illustrated. It was praised widely by farmers and hence future literature will be planned in this style. In addition, English Nature, RSPB and FWAG produced advisory leaflets for each of the four ELS pilot areas. The Higher Level ES will require more complex supporting information and advice, but this also will be more illustrative, following pilot examples funded by English Nature showing grassland condition for ground-nesting birds.
Although it is expensive, direct on-farm advice to farmers by well-trained advisers is the most effective way of disseminating information onto farms. But no two farms are the same. Differences, for example in soil type, size of workforce and individual farmer preferences, need to be taken into account by an adviser, but are difficult to encompass in generic advisory literature. Winter et al. (2000) showed that the best conservation plans, both from the farm business and biodiversity perspectives, are also those in which one-to-one advice has been given. However, the farm advice industry is currently unregulated and uncoordinated, with a wide variety of sources of advice on different topics and of variable quality, making the farmer's choice of adviser rather difficult. It remains a significant challenge to government to provide a framework for better integration and delivery of the advice on offer to farmers. However, a project in Defra's Learning, Skills and Knowledge Programme will identify criteria for evaluating the competence of Defra-funded advisers delivering advice on environmental conservation, pollution minimization and organic conversion (Defra 2004). It will also identify ways in which various competence frameworks could be developed to support standards for advisers and in which others can be encouraged to adopt similar criteria and frameworks, in part through requirements on contractors (and subcontractors) delivering services on behalf of Defra.
A full training programme for countryside managers is therefore a key to success. Advisers need a good understanding of farming and wider environmental issues, as well as biodiversity, and must be able to adapt their advice to individual circumstances. With the introduction of Entry Level ES, the need for environmental training has never been greater. Although most farmers are expected to join the scheme, the sheer numbers of agreement-holders will preclude individual advisory input. Instead, mechanisms such as those used in the ELS pilot (pre-application meetings, workshops and farm walks) will be used, backed up by supporting media such as simple advisory leaflets and decision support systems.
Agronomists are often important players in the success of certain management options, such as conservation headlands and wildlife mixtures, and many are undertaking the new Biodiversity and Environmental Training for Advisors (BETA) courses designed specifically for them. The Farmed Environment Company (FEC) gave training to agronomists responsible for advising on more than one million hectares in 2003 (M. Nowakowski pers. comm.). Looking ahead to the next generation of land managers, up-to-date information needs to be available for use in colleges and universities. With this in mind, a tutor manual and student resources pack has been produced (RSPB/LBCNC 1999).
If selected with care, demonstration farms can be a very powerful and efficient mechanism for showing practical ways of integrating conservation and farming to a wide range of land managers and advisers. The latter, in particular, have benefited from visits to a few farms undertaking environmental research and demonstrating the results (e.g. ARET, who trained over 1000 people in 2003, FEC, RSPB and the Institute for Grassland and Environmental Research). However, if they are to address successfully the needs of the majority of farmers, such farms need to be available throughout the country, covering the full range of farm types and demonstrating good examples of important farmland habitats in optimal condition. There are grant opportunities in the ERDP for educational access in agri-environment scheme agreements and for the provision of training through the Vocational Training Scheme. Some suitable venues exist now on LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming) demonstration farms. Here, farmers are also working to improve their own environmental profile with the public through LEAF's ‘Speak Out’ programme. This trains farmers to make the most of opportunities to promote positive environmental work on their farms and has the potential to create a virtuous circle of increased recognition of environmental work on farms leading to further environmental improvements. Defra has recently piloted a demonstration farms project (Forward Farming), but decisions on how this will be rolled out have yet to be taken.