The dramatic population declines of many bird species associated with lowland farmland is widely recognized as one of the most important conservation issues in Britain and elsewhere in Europe. The ‘Ecology and Conservation of Lowland Farmland Birds’ was the theme of the British Ornithologists’ Union conference in spring 1999. That conference drew together a wealth of information on the status and causes of decline for a wide range of farmland bird species and on contemporaneous conservation initiatives and agricultural policies (Aebischer et al. 2000). Since that time there has been a remarkable advance in the breadth and depth of farmland bird research. The emphasis has shifted from diagnosing causes of population declines to research aimed at developing practical solutions to stem and ultimately reverse them. These advances in science have been paralleled by rapid changes in policy. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) now uses wild bird population trends as a ‘headline indicator’ of the sustainability of its policies and ‘quality of life’ in the UK (Anon 1999). A subset of these species forms the Farmland Bird Index, summarizing the smoothed population trends of 18 species. In 2000, Defra adopted a Public Service Agreement (PSA) target ‘to care for our living heritage and preserve natural diversity … by reversing the long-term decline in the number of farmland birds in England by 2020, as measured annually against underlying trends’. This PSA target has raised the profile of farmland bird conservation and engendered a very effective working partnership between government bodies, statutory agencies and nongovernment organizations.
Reflecting this wealth of new research, as well as the changes in policy and practice, the theme of the spring 2004 BOU conference was the ‘Ecology and Conservation of Lowland Farmland Birds II: The Road to Recovery’, held at Leicester University on 26–28 March 2004. As was the case in the first conference, the aim was to bring together a wide range of individuals involved in research, monitoring, land management advice and policy development relating to lowland farmland birds in Britain. It was highly successful in this regard as the 175 registered participants included representatives of government departments, statutory agencies, researchers from universities, government institutes, nongovernment conservation organizations, industry and advisers.
In putting together the programme, the organizing committee (J.A. Vickery, A.D. Evans, P.V. Grice, N.J. Aebischer & R. Brand-Hardy) sought to highlight the ways in which a detailed scientific understanding of the causes of declines for many species have been translated into the development and testing of solutions to aid their recovery.
Following two introductory talks, on recent trends in bird populations (Gregory et al.) and changes in agricultural policy and technology (Buckwell & Armstrong-Brown), presentations fell into four categories. The first related to new information on the ecology and breeding biology of declining farmland bird species and included studies of Lapwing (Sheldon et al.), Song Thrush (Peach et al.), Tree Sparrow (Field & Anderson), Reed Bunting (Brickle & Peach) & Bullfinch (Profitt et al.). A common theme emerged from these talks: the importance of small-scale wetlands as sources of aquatic and soil-dwelling invertebrates. No device currently exists to help farmers create such features; this presents a new challenge to policy makers, and one to which Defra have already responded by commissioning a research project in this area. The second focused on studies of birds in grassland systems, which until recently, had received less attention compared to birds in arable habitats. A series of talks presented work on habitat use by birds in lowland grassland at the landscape (Robinson et al.) and field scale (Atkinson et al.), as well as the influences of management on food resources (McCracken & Tallowin) and foraging behaviour of birds (Devereux et al. Butler & Gillings) in grassland systems.
The majority of talks fell into a third category about testing solutions and developing techniques for species recovery. This emphasis reflected the drive towards achieving this goal at the scientific and political level. Presentations covered research assessing the potential benefits of management practices currently deployed or being tested as options under agri-environment schemes (Bradbury et al. Stoate et al.), as well as those being trialed as part of field experiments (Morris et al. Cunningham et al. Buckingham et al. Siriwardena & Stevens) or used in species recovery programmes (Aebischer et al.). Two other issues, with important implications for habitat management for farmland birds, were also considered: the importance of nonfarmland habitats for many farmland species (Fuller & Hinsley) and the interaction between habitat management and predation (Whittingham & Evans). The role of more dramatic intervention in the form of reintroduction was also considered (Carter et al.).
The fourth and final category of talks focused on how this wealth of scientific evidence could be and was being translated into policy (Grice et al.) and practice (Smallshire et al.), and the wider potential benefits of managing the farmed landscape for biodiversity (Sutherland).
Many individuals contributed to the success of the conference, first and foremost the speakers and authors of papers published in these proceedings. They tolerated incessant nagging reminders and met the tight deadlines we set in order to achieve rapid publication. Their hard work and scientific rigour resulted in a stimulating conference and a series of papers that we are sure will prove invaluable as a future source of reference material for scientists, policy makers and practitioners. We are grateful to Steve Dudley, British Ornithologists’ Union, for dealing almost single-handedly with the logistics of the meeting, Graeme Green (BOU) and to the University of Leicester for local arrangements. Briony Kay (RSPB) co-ordinated the impressive poster display. We thank the Editor of Ibis, Andy Gosler (University of Oxford), and Nicki Reed and Heidi Mellan (both British Trust for Ornithology), for all their help with the publication of the proceedings as a supplement to Ibis. They, together with a large number of scientists who acted as referees for the manuscripts, have enabled us to publish peer-reviewed proceedings within eight months of the conference.
The conference plainly showed that there is now sufficient understanding of the ecological requirements and causes of population declines of many farmland bird species to recommend and implement practical solutions for enhancing avian breeding and foraging habitat on farmland. In an overview talk that opened the conference, Ian Newton (Newton 2004) stressed the need for careful appraisal, through local and national monitoring, of the application and consequences of conservation actions. Only through a process of development, application, monitoring and modification can we maximize the environmental gains of action designed to benefit birds. In his address to the conference, Ben Bradshaw MP, Minister for Nature Conservation & Fisheries, confirmed that the Government remained ‘fully committed to the PSA target’ and said that their aim was to reverse the decline in all species within the farmland bird index′. We hope that this conference, and the rapid publication of the proceedings, will contribute in a valuable and timely way to this process.