Natural History

Farming Methods and Grassland Birds - Change and Decline

by Derek Venables

A study of Local History may usefully include a consideration of Natural History and any historical changes upon local habitats. In this particular instance it is hoped to consider some of the influences on changing habitats that appear to have affected bird life in farmland areas of Pulford and Poulton.

In the early years of the twentieth century Pulford and Poulton was a typical Cheshire dairy farming parish continuing the tradition of hay making for winter cattle fodder supplemented with some wheat/oats/ and some root crops. Cattle cake nuggets as an artificial supplement produced off the farm gradually appeared as a useful addition in later years. These farming methods allowed for a wide variety of grassland bird species appearing as migrants or resident breeding birds. Seed food was plentiful in farm stack yards and around stock buildings where the emphasis was on free range poultry, small croft enclosures and open access. T.S. Williams carried out a close study of bird life at Belgrave Moat Farm in and around 1928 and recorded a large number of nesting species. During these inter war years there was, in Pulford and Poulton, frequent reference to Corncrake (last recorded 1965), Lapwing, Curlew, Quail, Turtle Dove, Snipe, Yellowhammer, Linnet, Tree sparrow, Reed bunting and Skylark.

Shorthorn Cattle, common in the 20th Century

Farming methods were forced to change during World War 2 as the Government encouraged increased mechanisation, land ‘improvement’ to include previously unsuitable acreage, chemical fertilisers and pesticides, increased crop yields, and more intensive systems of stock management. Following poor summers hay making was replaced with silage, and early cutting in May (the nesting season) became the norm. The use of additional nitrates to stimulate grass growth and selective herbicides to control invasive weeds (an important seed food source for birds) produced a rye grass mono-culture conspired to discourage successful breeding in Spring and to deny food sources for wintering flocks of birds. Flail cutting of hedges can produce a neat and tidy boundary but usually with a height restriction that prevents hip, haw, nut and berry developing and which denies suitable nesting sites for several species which are now considered to be rare or entirely lost such as turtle dove, yellowhammer and linnet.

Threshing at Poulton Hall
Destruction of livestock during foot-and-mouth

In recent years pressure on dairy farmers has increased generally with the BSE crisis, foot-and- mouth disease, low price returns on milk, increased computer demand for paper work returns, and individual stock identification from birth tag through milk life yield to cull requirement date. Farms are being sold at an increasing rate as farmers retire and dairy farming is seen as having no future unless directed towards large intensive systems under computer control.

Where subsidy and grant aid allow there may be some opportunity for useful change towards greater diversification of land use which could provide a greater range of nesting habitat and a richer variety of food source for birds. Farmers can not be expected to make any changes without public and government support which recognises the value of the countryside as an important resource under stewardship for present and future generations.

This brief coverage is restricted to a consideration of some changes affecting bird life in Pulford and Poulton and requires continued research and farmer support.

Observations Relating To The Birdlife In Pulford & Poulton 2008-2012

Updated December 2012 By Derek Venables.

Intensive dairy farming has been further developed in Pulford and Poulton during recent years. Smaller farms have been absorbed with farm houses being sold for family dwellings and many outbuildings redesigned for up market family housing. As a consequence many traditional house-martin and swallow nesting sites have been lost in the desire for ‘gentrification’. Other associated changes in farming practice have also further affected wildlife habitat in general and birdlife in particular.

Zero grazing and the requirement for silage continues to affect the success of grassland nesting birds such as the lapwing, grey partridge and skylark. Where recent attempts to nest have been made in small areas, that have been ‘set aside’ by interested farmers, predation by crows and opportunism by invasive buzzards has resulted in failure either from egg loss or from attack on the vulnerable young.

Many hedgerows continue to be ‘flailed’ to a neat height that keeps the hedge base thick and strong and allows for clear sight lines for motorists. As a consequence fruit and berry lengths fail to mature and the absence of higher levels of hedge growth removes nesting sites for finches, yellow hammer, summer resident thrushes, and blackbirds. More recently farmers have allowed hawthorn hedges to grow up around inner fields and have increased hedgerow margins which should provide a more supportive habitat. In one hedgerow corner ‘staghorn’ oaks have provided support for a tree sparrow colony and juvenile birds had been sighted in 2009. A recent crop introduction of oil seed rape with associated ripening seed may go some way to encourage declining seed eating species such as linnets which were common in the Poulton area at the end of the last century. House sparrows continue to thrive in healthy flocks in Pulford village, Poulton Green, Cuckoo’s Nest and around remaining farmsteads although resident starlings are few in number until the arrival of migratory winter flocks which target cattle feed troughs.

There has been some recent reduction in the use of herbicides and insecticides owing to increased costs but any beneficial result on bird food sources will be delayed. Insect populations, for a variety of reasons including recent weather patterns, have been dramatically reduced. Certainly sightings of cuckoo have dramatically declined since 2008 when the last confirmed sighting of a calling male was heard. In living memory cuckoos were plentiful calling in late April and early May and being answered by the distinctive low warble of the female. Many reasons have been given nationally for this decline from problems on migratory passage, volatile weather patterns in Spring, lack of host species nest sites, and absence of caterpillar and other insect food. Certainly in nearby North Wales valleys the cuckoo is still fairly frequently heard calling throughout the summer but in 2012 in this area of Cheshire the cuckoo is now absent.

Ponds and drainage ditches still provide considerable cover and support for a variety of birdlife. Moorhen, mallard and even teal are usually to be found seeking winter cover, with moorhen and wild duck, Canada goose and grey lag successfully nesting in the larger pools and ponds. At slurry lagoons that have some insect- laced edge, green sandpiper and grey wagtail have been reported on winter passage. In Pulford Brook, little grebe and kingfisher are often reported in winter months while reed bunting and sedge warbler are to be found nesting at pond edge and in phragmites patches. A little egret briefly appearing in July 2009 near The Grosvenor Hotel caused special interest as this arrival could indicate a further northerly extension of the species. An additional unusual confirmed report (22 December 2010) was of a bittern on water to the south side of the Eaton Estate. Where bramble and associated weed and bush freely grow, migrant warblers such as chiffchaff, willow warbler, and blackcap secretively, successfully nest.

Farmers continue to make special efforts where possible to conserve the nature of local copse, woodland and associated areas of attendant growth seeking to preserve undisturbed corners available to wildlife. Nest boxes for barn owls and tawny owls have been provided with excellent success in good vole years. Nest boxes have also been provided for woodland birds with associated protection from predators. These boxes have been particularly successful with young birds being ringed. In a small woodland area successful broods of chaffinch, greenfinch, bullfinch, goldcrest, long tailed tit, chiffchaff, and blackcap have all been recorded by Richard Castell. It would appear that where local farmers are continuing to provide supportive habitat and protection from predators a variety of birds is encouraged successfully to increase. Perhaps one of the most successful bird species that has obviously increased is the rook now nesting in considerable numbers along the Wrexham Road wayside woodland and more recently into the woodland spinney in Pulford village. This is a species, once thought to be endangered in the mid 1960 decade, that is now increasing in Pulford by 25% per year over the last five years, in relation to the increase in counted nests in satellite rookeries.

Recently, over the past decade, woodland birds have been attracted to mature gardens and the growing fashion of providing feeding stations, nest boxes, and insect friendly, seed bearing plants. Great tits and blue tits seem to dominate the feeders together with robin, dunnock, chaffinch, greenfinch, blackbird and collared dove being present throughout the year. In the last five years the great spotted woodpecker, nuthatch, goldfinch, coal tit, and long tailed tit have become increasingly common with rarer seasonal visits from siskin, treecreeper and goldcrest. The marked increase in great spotted woodpecker may be at the cost of the green woodpecker which has significantly declined as their nesting hole sites have been usurped. In contrast the spotted flycatcher which used to nest in many gardens and even in hanging baskets, on shippon door hinges , and in downspout roses was restricted to one successful nest in a creeper covered porch in 2012. During 2010, 2011, and 2012 bullfinches began to make an appearance during the summer and early autumn, sometimes with accompanied juveniles, feasting on honeysuckle berries but there are no recent reports of successful nesting in local gardens. Woodpigeons also have moved increasingly into gardens attracted to seed, sprout tops and even blackcurrants and they frequently attempt to nest in any suitable garden site. This encouragement to birds to congregate in small areas does create problems as predators are also attracted to feeding stations. There are increasing reports of sparrow hawks taking small birds and in the nesting season sightings of magpie, jay, grey squirrel and domestic cat assembling to plunder nests for eggs or to wait for the emergence of the vulnerable young.

It would appear that, in the countryside, we have always lived through times of considerable change which impose on wildlife habitat. The present economic times, together with 2012 being the wettest year since 1912, make considerable demands upon farmers but hopefully it may be recorded that efforts are still being made to provide support for a variety of wildlife so that a rich diversity of species may be encouraged rather than reduced.

The present effects of changes in Pulford and Poulton upon the wider range of wildlife – mammals, snakes, amphibians, insects, spiders, and wild flowers perhaps may be considered in the future, following correlation of all local reports and sightings, and assessment of relevant research.