Sunday, 20 January 2013

Winter feeding and fattening

The latest available figures reveal that sixteen HLS agreement holders have adopted the new supplementary feeding option to support farmland birds in the critical late winter period when other sources of food are in short supply.  Some farmers are also adding this option to their ELS agreements.  Given the very short time in which to apply back in December, this is very encouraging and is a classic example of research by the Allerton Project (and colleagues in BTO and RSPB) being translated into practical action on the ground.

The data that we have gathered at Loddington over many years suggest that winter feeding results in more than twice as many songbirds present during the second half of the winter.  More importantly though, our results suggest that breeding bird numbers could also be up by 30%.  More food in late winter means more birds, and better survival of those birds so that more are present in the following spring.

Trail Camera image of yellowhammers feeding at a feeder at Loddington

This encouraging prospect and the current snowy weather have combined to prompt me to dig out some data from several years ago when I first got interested in this issue and started catching yellowhammers through the winter to see how much fat they were carrying.  Birds lay down more fat as the winter progresses - insurance against uncertainty associated with cold weather, shorter days, snow cover and depleted food reserves.  In late winter, fat levels decline and birds become more vulnerable to starvation.

Yellowhammer body condition index, reflecting fat reserves (1995/96 data).

I also have some results for the same period from the Rybachy bird ringing station on the eastern shore of the Baltic.  Fat reserves in yellowhammers are very different here, and considerably higher in the autumn than they are for British birds.  The reason is that Russian birds are laying down fat to fuel a southward migration, rather than to survive the winter on the same site.  There are no data for the winter because the birds have gone!

The low fat levels in the British birds in March serve to highlight the need for supplementary feeding in the scond half of the winter, but especially at the end of the winter when the food supply is at its lowest.  But these data are also a reminder that the same species can behave differently in different countries.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Water Friendly Farming update

Record rainfall on waterlogged soils at Loddington over the past few months (see Loddington Estate Blog) has brought farming activity to a halt and has flooded local roads, but research activity has also stepped up in response.  Following two dry winters, the recent rain provides opportunities for sampling water in the streams at Loddington and in the three headwater catchments of the Water Friendly Farming project.  The resulting data will contribute to an essential baseline against which to measure improvements in water quality over the next few years.  

Allerton Project Ecologist, John Szczur, processing water samples from one of our automated water samplers before despatching them to the labs for analysis.

The improvements in water quality are expected to arise as a result of a range of measures that will be put in place across the 20km2 agricultural landscape of the upper Eye Brook and Stonton Brook over the next year or so.  It is a big task in terms of the scale of both the monitoring and the mitigation, but on our side we have strong support from the farming community and experience gained from a suite of relevant research projects over the past decade.  The physical measures that we have already started to create on the ground include field drain interceptor ponds, wetlands designed to receive surface runoff, and carefully sited dams in ditches.  These will be backed up with practical advice to farmers, and we have not forgotten domestic sources of nutrients such as septic tanks.

Watch this space for the latest developments and results to emerge from the project, and for news of other activities on our own farm at Loddington.

Local contractor John Farnsworth creating one of the first field drain interceptor ponds to be made as part of the Water Friendly Farming project.