BLOG: Fraser Hugill & the Big Farmland Bird Count

Last updated: 15 Feb 2016

Fraser Hugill & his partner Rosy farms 320 acres split between two farms nr Helmsley & Stokesley  in North Yorkshire.   The farm is roughly 50:50 grass and arable with the Helmsley farm grassland dominated and Stokesley arable.  The livestock side consists of 50 pedigree beef shorthorn cows and followers.  The Helmsley farm has just entered a new Higher Tier countryside Stewardship agreement following the expiry of its ELS agreement. Fraser is also regional co-ordinator for CFE and runs his own consultancy business.

Planning for the big farmland bird day started before Christmas as I was asked by GWCT to organise one of the  bird ID days.  In my wisdom I decided to host the event on my own farm little realising the challenge of being chief organiser as well as host brought a whole new meaning to the word pressure!   We also had both Minster FM and BBC radio York attending just to raise the tension.

Our day seemed to sell out quickly which was great with a mix of farmers and farm advisors from a far afield as Cumbria!  This could not be just locals wanting a nosy around! 

The advanced planning resulted in Santa bringing a new weapon to help with the count.  The cannon powershot SX60HS can shoot a small bird at 50 paces, my theory is with the little brown jobs shoot first identify later!  As a farmer any excuse for a new bit of new kit.  (Just to confirm before I get trolled the powershot is a camera)

 Feeding of birds started into the New Year prompted by the new CS agreement where we have included the winter feeding option,  20+ people were coming to see some birds also focused the effort.    We have 0.5 of a tonne included in the agreement, I think this is a really good option just to see the birds through the hungry winter gap,  a bit like our overdraft while waiting for the BPS this January.

The big day of the training arrived, big sigh of relief in that it was not raining and my friend Chris Tomson from the RSPB was fit and well and able to provide his expert bird ID skills.  I can do management advice but my little brown jobs ID skills are not upto Chris’s level. 

Chris is a great champion of the work farmers do and has done a huge amount to encourage farmers to manage their land for farmland birds.   I think this is what the BFBC is all about encouragement getting us as farmers to think a little bit more about what wildlife we are sharing our farms with.  If we become more interested in wildlife we tend to take a bit more consideration in how we look after it.  

Managing for our barn owl is a good example of this, through CFE we have done a number of training days on how to manage for barn owls, what is clear is that the topper is not the barn owls best friend.  Clearly we don’t get barn owls in the topper however to feed the barn owls we need longer tussocky grass for the voles.  It’s all about understanding this and trying to farm for voles accordingly.   There is however the dilemma, perceived tidy vs barn owl?

So back to the training day everyone seemed to enjoy the morning session where we did the ID training and got everyone thinking about management requirements after a good feed it was off to the farm.  

Radio York spotted my feeding pretty quickly, gate posts with feed on top, one way to help avoid feeding rats.   Birds seemed to be typically keeping a lower profile by this point, Chaffinches and blackbirds were around as well as long tailed tits and gold crest.  The tree sparrows that are always around did a disappearing act as well as the barn owl which was out virtually every day during Jan upto the training day!  We learnt from Chris that we had immigrant blackbirds from the continent as they had a much brighter orange beak.

So training finally done now over to the main event the count, Friday 12 Feb was my allocated day.  A nice frosty morning, birds singing a good start unlike last year where I had thick fog!  8 tree sparrows in the bag straight away relief.   Then it gets a bit harder, has anyone else felt the urge to scream will you just stay --- still?   Anyway 30min ish later I think I have 18 species some checking to do of the photos and books tonight.   I am sure I have a photo of a Mistle Thrush, I thought I had a Dunnock but seem to just have hedge bottom!

Of course this is only a snap shot over the last couple of years we have kept a record and have about 70 species and counting.  The real key to the count though is getting us to think what we do the other 364 days.  My objective is to ensure when next year’s count comes around I can increase my count and get some new species.    I am hoping the new CS agreement will help getting some wild bird mixes onto the grassland dominated farm.

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