By Nicholas Watts MBE, the CRT’s Chairman of the Board of Trustees and owner of Vine House Farm in Lincolnshire, which specialises in growing bird food and sells produce in its farm shop.

I left the farmhouse at dawn and was delighted to hear two blackbirds singing nearby and two more further away. The chorus was later joined by a song thrush, a wren and a robin. I’d been worried it was going to be a silent spring, so all the birdsong brought a smile to my face.

Each morning in winter and spring, I drive around Vine House Farm to feed the birds. It’s something of a ritual now, and it doesn’t matter what the weather throws at me. I’ll make my way around the farm, stopping to add feed and keep a record of the birds I see on my journey. I’ve been keeping a wildlife diary for 63 years, and my bird surveys started in 1982.

As I write, in March, I can feel spring is arriving. We’ll soon be planting sugar beet, peas and potatoes, but this week there’s been rain every day so instead there’s a lot of maintenance work going on for the machinery, farm buildings and conservation. The bird seed crops will wait until late April.

One of the things I am hugely proud of at Vine House is the amount of conservation projects I’ve been able to do on the land. I’m passionate about wildlife, especially birds, and it’s wonderful to see so many species on and around our fields.

We’ve created the right habitat to encourage them to come. From wetlands, to grass margins and hedgerows, wherever it’s been possible there has been a conservation project. We have barn owls nesting in the boxes we’ve provided, marsh harriers in the wetland areas, and flocks of reed buntings and chaffinches settling, then lifting in unison from the bushes and reeds.

As the CRT’s Chairman of the Board of Trustees, I’m pleased to say that the kind of conservation projects I have carried out at my farm are replicated at many of the CRT’s farms. Ultimately, it’s the CRT’s aim to protect and run smaller farms in a way that allows for the right balance between agricultural production and wildlife.

If we didn’t own these farms, it’s likely they’d be taken over by large agri-businesses. Then, instead of being divided into smaller parcels of land by hedgerows, grass strips, wildflower margins, scrubland and woodland, a 200-acre farm would become one giant field with no room for wildlife.

Smaller farms are the heart of the countryside I know and love, and I’m sure it’s the same for many of the CRT’s Friends. As these farms get swallowed up by large scale farming enterprises, I believe we are losing the very fabric of the countryside. We can’t allow this to happen, and it’s why your support is so vital.

Watching birds such as lapwing, wigeon, oystercatcher, teal and redshank visiting my farm’s wetland area gives me a huge amount of pleasure. I am a farmer who wants to put nature’s needs at the forefront of what I do. I’ve been lucky enough to turn my passion into a business, growing crops that are sold as birdseed.

However, from the bird surveys I started doing more than 40 years ago, I can tell you that our farmland birds have been in dramatic decline for a long time. The reasons are complex, but certainly linked to the rise in the intensity of farming practices. It’s the brutal truth, but modern farming as it stands is not always compatible with wildlife. I am doing my bit to give these birds half a chance, as are CRT farms, but we must all keep shouting from the rooftops about what’s going on.

I hope all farmers consider themselves guardians of nature, but of course when you are trying to make a living, the edges are blurred. That’s why the government’s Environmental Land Management (ELM) schemes are so important to help establish more wildlife-friendly zones on farmland, by paying farmers to give space to wildlife habitat. If I could wave a magic wand, I would try to persuade every farmer to take up at least one or two of the options of the government schemes. What a difference that would make.

On today’s drive around my farm, I’ve counted 45 species of birds, collected eggs for our farm shop, and watched several groups of male brown hares chasing a female around the fields. The joys of spring are delightful.

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Published in The Lark magazine, May 2023