Through my surveys I discovered our farmland birds were in dramatic decline 30 years ago and since then I have been creating habitat on my farms to increase wildlife. This has been successful for many species, but not all. Sadly, turtle doves (Streptopelia turtur) have disappeared, and corn buntings are still in decline. Sixty years ago, Fenland farmers had to shoot wild pheasant to reduce their numbers as they would scratch out the drilled wheat seed from a field.

Today, there are few or no wild pheasant around because they are running out of their primary food, insects. Our intensive farming has decreased the number of insects by as much as 80 per cent, and this means that most birds that need insects to grow up on are in decline.

Grey partridge (Perdix perdix), corn buntings (Emberiza calandra), and tree sparrows (Passer montanus) have decreased nationally by 90 per cent because of the lack of insects. Only 25 years ago there was a flock of 300 corn buntings that I attracted into my farmyard at Baston Fen. They were fed through the winter for about 15 years and during that time the flock was reduced to about 100 because they were unable to rear enough chicks to sustain their population. They don’t start nesting until mid-June because they can’t find enough insects before then, which means they only manage one brood each year.

In the 1970s, there were flocks of 3,000 tree sparrows in the winter on Whittlesey Wash, all feeding on fat hen seeds. Their population crashed until we saw very few birds around. In 2007 I noticed 2 pairs on my farm, so I erected some nest boxes and fed them red millet among the insect rich habitat that I had created, and I soon had a thriving population.


Above: Nicholas counts chicks in his tree sparrow nest boxes at Vine House Farm.

By 2017 I had 150 pairs breeding on my farm in and around insect rich habitat and a few of those pairs were having four broods, but sadly most of Deeping Fen is not insect rich. It used to be before modern agriculture came along, and so tree sparrows are unable to breed successfully in the Fens, unless we create or stop destroying insect rich habitat.

When I was at school at Uppingham, Rutland, 60 years ago, starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) would be streaming over the town each morning from Bloody Oaks spinney near Exton Park. It was estimated there were over a million birds roosting in that spinney. In the late 1970s there was a big starling roost in on Park Farm in Deeping Fen. There were so many, perhaps half a million, that they were killing the trees with their droppings. Both roosts have gone, and any roosts around probably don’t exceed 10,000 birds. 

I can remember 3 or 4 fields during the winter months in Deeping Fen 50 years ago where there would be 500 or 600 mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) feeding on fields that potatoes had been grown on during the previous summer. They were feeding on the small or diseased potatoes that had been left on the fields by the potato pickers.

Today if I can see 50 mallards on old potato, that is all. Lack of winter food and lack insects has been their problems as ducklings need to eat insects to grow up on and we have less insects. Another of their problems is too many foxes and too many crows, because both of them find mallard nests to eat the eggs.

I have been counting wildfowl on the gravel pits around Langtoft since 1975. In 1986 I counted 700 coots on the old gravel workings west of Langtoft village and on Tallington Lakes. I’m told there were 1100 coots (Fulica) at their peak. Today I can only count 20 at Langtoft.

Why they have declined so dramatically I don’t know, except we have so many carrion crows around and they are expert nest finders. Once they find a nest, they will take all the eggs. I am not suggesting all those coots bred on those old gravel workings, because many of them migrated back on to the continent to breed and it could be, with milder winters, they don’t need to migrate across the North Sea. As we know, we have milder winters because of intensive human activity. 

I can remember my mother getting fed up with the cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) calling! Well, the Cuckoo is still around but in my lifetime it’s gone from surplus to scarcity. Cuckoos feed on caterpillars of the peacock and tortoiseshell butterflies, as well as hairy caterpillars of various moths, and as they have declined, so have the Cuckoos’ hosts - the dunnock (Prunella modularis) and the meadow pipits (Anthus pratensis). Naturally, if there is less food and less nests around for them to lay eggs in, they will decline.    

Above: Hairy caterpillar like this brown-tail moth caterpillar (Euproctis chrysorrhoea) are eaten by cuckoo.

In the early 1990s I grew an acre of linseed next to the yard at Vine House Farmyard. This brought a charm of 300 goldfinches (Carduelis carduelis) for 2 months feeding on the linseed. I haven’t seen a charm of more than 50 Goldfinches during the last 10 years. They have less winter food as any standing vegetation on farmland gets destroyed by the flail mower, which will also affect linnets, as they are seed eaters. In the late 70s I was finding over 40 linnets (Linaria cannabina) nests a year. I have quite a lot of linnets on the farm today but if I could find 10 nests that would be something!

Above: A linnet on bushes near feeders at Vine House Farm.

I started feeding birds in my garden sometime in the 1970s but whatever I put out house sparrows and starlings swiped the lot. The only thing I could they didn’t like was oil seed rape and so that is what I fed. Greenfinches (Chloris chloris), goldfinches, linnets, bramblings, stock doves (Columba oenas) and turtle doves all came to feed. In the late 1980s I had up to 140 goldfinches and 170 Greenfinches feeding 

Around 1980 I was catching greenfinches in mist nets at my Casewick Farm, where they were feeding on mustard going to seed. I estimated there to be about 1,000 in the flock, but greenfinches haven’t been around in flocks like that for years.

In the 1980s I could see wheatears (Oenanthe oenanthe) every day in the autumn on the farm when on their migration and sometimes 4 or 5 in a day. In 2020 I saw just two wheatears all autumn.                                                   

I have been counting waders in the Wash since 1970. It takes 22 people to count them, each counter has his patch, and mine is Holbeach Marsh. There were always a lot of shelducks (Tadorna tadorna) and they peaked at 4200 in March 1987. Today, I can only count a maximum of about 60. Their young also need insects and a lack of insects is, most likely, the cause of their decline.

Every farm used to have swallows (Hirundo rustica) in the farmyard but not today. Swallows live on flies and flies live around farm animals. In the Eastern Counties there aren’t many cattle and so not many swallows but there also used to be flies and other insects flying above our crops. This is why swallows nested in the pill boxes on Holbeach Marsh. There would be over 20 Swallows nests in the pill boxes just behind the sea wall on Holbeach Marsh in the late 1970s but by 1990 there were only about 4.

By repeated spraying of our crops there are no longer enough insects to support a family of swallows gathering insects flying above our crops. Swallows could then only find enough insects where there was livestock and that is how it has remained. In the 1970s and 80s I could see a swallow or a house martin until the middle of October, but since then they have been leaving earlier and today I am lucky to see one after the 20th September. They are leaving earlier because there are so few flies.         

Not all birds have declined. In the late 1970s I saw my first cormorant (Phalacrocoracidae carbo) flying up the Welland, and now they are a common breeding bird in the area. They have found ponds where man has been rearing trout and carp and that has given them a surplus of food throughout the year. Any animal or bird that has a surplus of food will increase in numbers; you only have to look at the human race to realise that.       

A welcome increase has been the green woodpecker (Picus viridis) as 40 years ago it seemed to be on the decrease, but its laughing call is a lovely sound. It can now be heard far more frequently than it used to be. Wood pigeons (Columba palumbus), although they only lay 2 eggs in a nest and more are shot than any other bird, have still been increasing in numbers. Admittedly, they have two or three broods but that still adds up to less eggs laid in a year than a blackbird (Turdus merula), a swallow, or indeed most passerine birds.

The wood pigeons’ secret is that they have a surplus of food all through the year. They can eat leaves from broad leaved plants all through the year, and their nesting season comes later than most birds, as they don’t have or need insects in their diet. Instead, they feed their young on grain and berries from bushes and shrubs. They drink a lot of water in the autumn so their digestive system can make pigeon milk from the grain, berries and water, which they regurgitate to their youngsters.

It only lays 2 eggs because its digestive system will only work fast enough to feed one youngster, so two adults can rear two youngsters. It lays a white egg because it doesn’t need to lay camouflaged ones as it sits on its eggs from day one. That is why when you see a wood pigeon’s nest with young in it, one youngster is always a bit larger than the other.  

In the 1960s there was only the occasional fox (Vulpes vulpes), there were no badgers (Meles meles), no carrion crows (Corvus corone), magpies (Pica pica), buzzards (buteo buteo), red kites (Milves milves), marsh harriers (Circus aeruginosus) or ravens (Coruvus corax) in Deeping Fen, but we have all of them now. They all get provided with a surplus of food by the shooting fraternity who release over 40 million pheasants every year into the British countryside.

Above: Once endangered, red kite are a conservation success story.

You can’t release all those birds without it having some effect on other species. Those 40 million birds weigh twice as much as all the wild birds in the UK and any animal or bird that has a surplus of food will increase in numbers. Some of these birds of prey are spectacular to see, but between them all they are nibbling away at all those other declining birds which we cherish and like to see.

In Eastern England, 80 per cent of our countryside is sprayed with chemicals several times a year, most of these chemicals do not kill birds or insects, but they starve them by killing their food. Our harvesting processes are far more efficient than they used to be, meaning there is less food left on our fields. We keep using flail mowers more and more, and they kill everything in their path. Every car is a fly swatter, we continue to lay concrete and tarmac, and are building new houses and industrial estates faster than ever. The displaced wildlife silently disappears and perishes with nowhere to live.

What hope is there for our declining wildlife? In 20 years, the insect population will be less than it is now and so our bird population will consist of wood pigeons and a load of thugs - the crow family, buzzards, kites and large gulls, all chipping away at those birds we are trying to preserve but mainly feeding on reared game birds, the rubbish we discard, and roadkill which is now mostly wood pigeons and reared pheasants.

Millions of us saw the dramatic wildlife program hosted by Sir David Attenborough in early September 2020, and might have thought what a mess we are in, but how many of us will do anything different as a result? By joining The CRT, you can help fund our projects to ensure farmland and wildlife can co-exist successfully.