It is long-recognised that our farmland birds have taken an unfair proportion of declines in recent decades, with well-known species such grey partridges, skylarks and corn buntings having lost some 90% of their population during that period.
The advent of intensive farming techniques in the last century saw increased chemical warfare both above and underground, removal of some 250,000 miles of hedges and the loss of flower-rich margins around the outside of fields. One of the more significant losses has been overwinter fallow fields where post-harvest roots and seeds were left until spring ploughing. Most fields nowadays are ploughed shortly after harvesting and re-seeded immediately to increase the season of growth and bring forward next year’s crops. All this has seriously affected numbers of many farmland birds such as yellow wagtails, and wintering finches and buntings.
What’s happening to farmland birds around Maidenhead?
Despite these issues, we are fortunate in the Maidenhead area to still have opportunities for lapwings to breed, for cuckoos to maraud the nests of others, and even for quail to be heard most years. Swarms of swallows and house martins feed over field systems, many a linnet and whitethroat can be heard uttering their delightful sunny ditties along hedge-lined lanes, and the striking bullfinch may well be encountered along our bridleways.
The insects that manage to avoid the chemicals employed in crops also draw in our spectacular summer-visiting hobby which can be seen scything through the sky hunting for dragonflies, cockchafers and the like, and even pursuing swifts or meadow pipits when there are young to be fed.
In winter, flocks of chaffinches, linnets and reed buntings gather around game cover which is often found around farms with regular shoot events, and these flocks occasionally host gems such as Tree Sparrows and Bramblings. The corvid family (crows, rooks and jackdaws) group together and increasingly may be accompanied by the dramatic raven, which has recently nested in our area after 150 years of absence.
In short, there is always something to be seen or heard on our surrounding farmland and the significant network of footpaths and bridleways afford us every opportunity to explore.
What can I do?
If you are a farmer or landowner, a great deal, but if you are a resident, there are some practical things you can do. You can offer your services to help your local farmer with the annual Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust farmland bird count (www.gwct.org.uk/farming/big-farmland-bird-count/taking-part-in-the-count/).
Local farmers might like volunteers to put out winter bird food at regular locations, or to supply quantities of feed to facilitate this.
In summer, walk farmland regularly to pinpoint any lapwing or skylark nests on the ground so the farmer can be informed about them (let us know as we have connections with many local farmers).