Wednesday, 24 August 2016


Swallows are among the species hit by loss of cattleyard habitat

THE extent to which arable land  is now under the chemical cosh was underlined by the disturbing talk given by Lincolnshire  farmer Nicholas Watts.

Back in the 1960s when he was at the start of his career, probably just one  spray was applied to crops, but, since then, the agro-chemical industry has, in his words, "got into gear".

Now there are likely  to be as many as 10 applications - three herbicides, two growth regulators, two insecticides and three fungicides.

The crops grown by Nicholas, who is based at Vine House Farm, Deeping St Nicolas, include  wheat, winter barley rape and potatoes, but his output also embraces the likes of sunflower seed which primarily supplies the expanding market for wild bird seed.

He decided to reduce his own dependence on chemicals when he noted substantial decreases in farmland birds on his own fields between 1982 and 1992.

For instance, 30 singing skylarks reduced to14 and singing corn buntings  fell from between eight and 12 to just one.

Because mixed farming is no longer a viable option for most farmers, cattleyards have become a sight of the past in many parts of eastern England - more  bad news for many species of bird which formerly found them an important habitat either for feeding (wagtails and yellowhammers) or nesting (swallows).

Nicholas Watts - We've got to do a lot better

According to Nicholas' reckoning, the decline of swallows has been as much as 90 per cent over the past 50 or so years.

The loss to chemicals of many wildflowers - sometimes deemed to be "weeds" - has hit bees and insects such as butterflies whose caterpillars are plant-specific in their requirements.

The Lincolnshire lamented the loss of spotted flycatchers whose decline he attributed not just to chemicals but also to the surge in car ownership

"There are 30-million of these fly-swatters on our roads,"he said. "No wonder we are losing our flycatchers."

Nicholas was also saddened about the fate of the cuckoo. "Mother used to get fed up with their constant calling,"he recalled. "But in many places, they are  now longer to be heard."

To his immense credit, this Lincolnshire grower is trying to make his own farm as bird-friendly as possible - and his achievements have already been hugely impressive.

There are some 1,000-plus tree sparrows on his fields, and, in 2014, thoughtfully-installed nest boxes resulted in no fewer than 87 barn owls being hatched and reared.

Asked if he was optimistic for the future, he replied: "No, not really - we're not doing very well, are we?

"We've got to do a lot better - it's down to the next generation of farmers."

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