Farmer Heroes

PUBLISHED: 14:48 10 November 2011 | UPDATED: 20:15 20 February 2013

PHOTO: Jodie Randall

PHOTO: Jodie Randall

The RSPB's Felicity Clarke visits three Devon farms to find out more about their birdlife

The RSPBs Felicity Clarke visits three Devon farms to find out more about their birdlife

As a Project Officer for RSPB in the Westcountry, I get to visit many different farms here in Devon to carry out bird surveys. There are some amazing farmers here doing wonderful things for wildlife, and heres just a flavour of some of the farms I visited earlier this year.

Dairies and deer

In April I called in at a dairy farm near Tiverton. When I arrived at 6am, the farmer was busy herding the cows for milking, happy for a chat before I ventured out into his fields to see and hear what was about. This first visit to the site revealed a surprising amount of birds including song thrushes singing their repetitive, copy-cat song, and the distinctive scarlet flash of a male bullfinch in a stand of willows. By the end of my third visit, I had found a total of 37 bird species.
The farmer told me to look out for Stan, a three-legged red deer. It was an endearing moment when I happened upon him. Unafraid of me, Stan came closer, munching on rye grass and dock leaves. We watched each other for about ten minutes before I got on with the task at hand, but Stan continued to follow me around his field, until he got bored with my pace and got back to his feast.


The second farm I worked with this year a large arable farm near Eggesford could not have been more different. It was almost entirely sown to winter wheat, quite an intensively cultivated crop, sustaining skylarks, yellowhammers and linnets, three rare farmland birds.Part of the farm bordered a river where I was delighted to find dipper, kingfisher and sand martins.
My last visit here, one morning in June, was by far the best. Bird surveys are normally done on dry, still, warm days as birds are more active then. One of the worst conditions for bird surveys is fog, which is what I encountered that morning.
I persevered as fog usually burns off within an hour. I had forgotten my waterproof trousers so one field later the fog, the previous nights heavy rainfall and the waist-height wheat saw me with water flowing into my boots! At 8am the sun finally came out and dried my sopping legs, and I was ecstatic to confirm breeding of an unusual species on the farm: tree pipit. I saw an adult with food in its beak, a positive sign they are breeding and taking food to chicks in the nest.
After this excitement I completed the survey, and while making my way back to the car for dry shoes and socks, I was startled by an unexpected flash of white. I looked up to see a barn owl soundlessly swooping into the barn. I was utterly elated!

Ruby reds

The third farm, near Witheridge, was another contrast. Organically grown crops, Devon ruby red cattle for beef, Leicester Longwool sheep for lamb and wool for a textile business, and free range chickens, ducks, geese and pigs.
The land is managed sympathetically and traditionally, with special consideration for the culm grassland, a rare habitat found only in parts of Devon and Cornwall. These areas rely on a delicate balance between soil type and water levels. They are usually very wet, and because of these unusual characteristics, are home a diversity of species from mosses to orchids to marsh fritillary butterflies.
The arable fields were full to bursting with skylarks, singing so high up I could barely see them. There were yellowhammers singing their little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheeeeese songs in almost every hedge. The grassland ran alongside a wooded river that was peppered with song thrushes and great spotted woodpeckers, boisterous nuthatches and secretive treecreepers.
The farmers I meet are earnestly trying to make their living from the land, providing us with our milk, bread, beefburgers and beer, and many of them still take time to think about birds and other wildlife on their farms. Some have already made big steps for nature, and others are only just beginning by having one of the RSPBs free bird surveys.

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