This morning, whilst surveying a farm in Warwickshire I watched a female Merlin dashing across a winter stubble field in pursuit of Common Linnets. Later, as I crisscrossed a winter bird survival mix I was treated to the rather eerie experience of inadvertently flushing two Short-eared Owls from a daytime roost. The feeling is an odd one as they usually get up within feet of you and it seems weird to put up such a large bird at close quarters with no noise, the silence and slow wing beats giving you the impression they are no more panicked than is strictly necessary. As I slogged through the afternoon and the saturated clay I reflected on the value of the habitats created under the Higher Level Stewardship Scheme (HLS) to species other than those at which the scheme is targeted. Matt Wilmott, a land management advisor at Natural England (who administer the scheme) has been drawing attention to this subject in his talks on HLS for some time. The examples he cites are often taken from the survey work I have been conducting over the last five years on six Warwickshire farms which are in HLS agreements.
Beyond the target species (a suite of declining farmland birds) most of the wintering birds making use of HLS options in my area are precisely those you may expect. Two to three Short-eared Owls occur on one or two of my farms every winter but during influxes numbers are far higher. During the winter of 2011/12 I recorded Short-eared Owls on five of my farms with a combined total of 19 individuals present. These birds will roost and forage in rough grassland along conservation headlands and areas left uncultivated to protect archaeological features, also making use of winter bird survival mixes for day roosting.
Short-eared Owl over HLS funded grasslands 2011
Far rarer are Hen Harrier which has occurred twice during my survey period and Great Grey Shrike which has occurred once. Merlin are sometimes attracted to the finch flocks on winter bird survival mixes and I see Peregrine and Red Kite on my HLS farms regularly.
Great Grey Shrike on HLS funded grassland 2009
Winter bird mixes are a favourite with Common Stonechat which occasionally winter and occur on migration.
Common Stonechat along the edge of a winter bird survival mix 2014
Other migrants include Whinchat which also favour bird mixes and Common Wheatear which often occur on grassland areas and Lapwing plots. I have seen migrant Common Redstart dropping out of hedgerows in to conservation headlands to feed and I flushed Tree Pipit from a margin on one occasion. Migrant Meadow Pipit flocks are frequently found in grasslands and stubbles and small numbers winter. Marsh Harrier has taken advantage of rough grassland on one farm and Little Egret has fished a wetland there also.
Migrant and wintering Common Snipe and occasional Jack Snipe are often found on wetlands created for breeding waders and out of season Lapwing plots and Eurasian Woodcock are sometimes flushed from margins and rough corners. Winter stubbles and Lapwing plots are also used by European Golden Plover which winter and pass through in spring and autumn. Other migrant waders occasionally drop in on wetlands Dunlin, Green Sandpiper, Common Redshank and Common Greenshank being the most frequent but Ruff, Black-tailed Godwit and Pied Avocet have been recorded. Great and Cattle Egret have both paused briefly at a wetland on one farm.
Ruff on HLS funded wetland 2010
The habitat provided by HLS which benefits the greatest number of non-target species probably has to be the winter bird survival mixes which support a variety of finches in large numbers. Chaffinch are unsurprisingly the commonest with Greenfinch in far smaller numbers and occasional Brambling occurring on migration and throughout the winter. If the total area of UK farmland which is currently in HLS agreements is considered it seems likely that it may represent a significant resource to migrant and wintering birds throughout the country. Whilst this may be a secondary benefit of the scheme it could still be a fairly important one and is unlikely to be considered during the current revisions which will determine the limits of the new ‘simplified’ stewardship regime.