Down on the farm
Josh Jones met with Nicholas Watts of the award-winning Vine House Farm to discuss the past, present and future of wildlife-friendly farming.
Farmland birds have declined drastically in recent decades, with the intensification of agriculture introducing a wealth of problems for some of our most beloved species. The solutions are complex, but there is hope if things are managed the right way. Josh Jones sat down with Nicholas Watts of the award-winning Vine House Farm to discuss the past, present and future of wildlifefriendly farming.
The UK is one of the most naturedepleted countries on Earth. By 2007, just one Tree Sparrow, Corn Bunting, Grey Partridge and European Turtle Dove remained in existence for every 10 that lived in 1970 – and things have got even worse since then. More than 800,000 km of hedgerow
– a habitat on which those remaining individuals rely so much – has been lost since the end of the Second World War.
It’s a miserable state of affairs that we have been so repeatedly hit with such statistics that we almost become numb to them – so used to hearing them that such shocking facts don’t always carry the potency that they should.
It was noticing such rapid declines on his own farm that spurred Nicholas
Counting on birds
Watts, who has worked the land at Vine House Farm near Spalding, Lincolnshire, since 1964, into action – and ultimately led to the creation and management of a greatly successful bird food business.
Nicholas holds a lifelong passion for wildlife, and especially birds. First noted by his elders as he searched for nests as a four-year-old, he was keeping year lists in his teens – although concedes he lost interest somewhat when he first got into farming. Sitting with a coffee, we overlook his garden feeders as we reflect on his experiences six decades on.
After starting annual breeding bird surveys on his land in the Seventies, Nicholas found a decade later that both Corn Bunting and Eurasian Skylark had undergone sharp declines. “That worried me,” he recalls, “and I wondered what I could do about it.”
Nicholas started feeding the birds in his yard during the winter months. It created such a spectacle that he held an open day in January 1993 to allow the public to come and see it. “Two or three people asked me if I could sell them some bird food,” he says. This was, in many respects, the very beginning of Vine House Farm as we know it today. On a trip to Argentina, Nicholas and his wife Anne were enamoured by the spectacular sunflowers growing in fields there and brought back some seeds. The resultant sunflowers which grew in their garden proved a magnet for birds, and it was in 1998 that Nicholas planted his first crop and began purposefully marketing the product. “The phone just kept ringing [with customers], and we were off!”
As the bird food company took off, so did Nicholas’s dedication to the birds resident on his land. Now in his late seventies, his relentless recording efforts continue; for example, each April and May alone, he covers 150 km on foot conducting breeding bird surveys across his farm and adjoining properties.
But what does the monumental volume of data he has accumulated tell us, and how does it compare to the
wider countryside? As always, there are winners and losers.
Tree Sparrow, a species now lost from vast swathes of the UK countryside, has traditionally done well here. Numbers peaked in 2017, with around 150 pairs breeding that summer and close to
1,000 pulli logged. They have since suffered a stark drop, with around half that number in 2021.
It is an enigmatic bird for Nicholas. Nesting in colonies, he feeds his
Tree Sparrows throughout the year and this has undoubtedly bolstered their breeding success – but it is their nomadism which Nicholas believes is contributing to the observed decline, with birds moving away from the farm and not returning.
Yellowhammer is still showing gradual declines in the area, despite efforts to feed them throughout the year and provide improved nesting habitat. Nicholas feels sure that the species would fare much better if more farmers and landowners continued feeding during the so-called ‘hungry gap’ in late winter and early spring, when natural food is at a paucity due early ploughing of stubble fields.
The future also looks uncertain for Corn Bunting, a bird which Nicholas perhaps too self-critically says he has “failed on”. Despite a relatively high number of territories still persisting here compared to the wider UK countryside, they are struggling. Quite opposite to Tree Sparrow, Nicholas believes their natal behaviour is a big stumbling block to their recovery. “Males move in and start to sing in suitable habitat on my organic farm, but there’s no females,” he explains. “While there’s a declining population, they don’t move readily from their remaining core areas. If they were increasing, they’d spread out and recolonise, but the problem is that they’re going the opposite way.”
This is despite Nicholas farming organically since 1998, a switch he had hoped would bring back species such as Corn Bunting and Eurasian Skylark. “It hasn’t produced the recovery of wildlife I thought it might,” he surmises, although he acknowledges that it is only in recent years that weeds are finally starting build up again in crops after years of spraying wiped them out.
There is no doubt in Nicholas’s mind that releasing Common Pheasants into the countryside is detrimental to farmland wildlife. While also providing a surplus of food to generalist predators such as corvids, large gulls, Common Buzzards and Red Kites (all of which are increasing in the area), as well as mammals including Red Fox, the large numbers of landfowl are also outcompeting native species for foods such as seeds and insects.
The rise of corvids and other generalists is putting greater pressures on the area’s breeding birds. Nicholas’s land forms part of my wider patch and I watched Lesser Black-backed Gulls taking Northern Lapwing eggs earlier this spring. Not far away, one of the few remaining pairs of European Turtle Doves locally lost two recently hatched chicks to Magpie predation. Nicholas is under no illusion that the imbalance we see today is of our own doing, and doesn’t see any easy solution.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. There are clear winners, such as Western Marsh Harrier, which is now a regular breeder. Barn Owls are also doing well. “We’ve got more six-metre margins than most farmers, and that’s where the voles are.”
Nicholas also cites Common Whitethroat and Sedge Warbler as doing well, thanks to reduced flailing and mowing – which he describes as a “quite simple” solution to allow scrubby thickets and weedy margins to regenerate across the farm. The latter especially seems to fluctuate, though, presumably due to conditions on wintering grounds.
Northern Lapwings are thriving, too, which Nicholas believes is in part thanks
❝Wildlife has undoubtedly benefited from Nicholas’s decadeslong others❞ efforts, but the baton must be picked up by
to direct drilling. This method, which he describes as “the only new farming idea in my lifetime that has actually increased wildlife abundance”, avoids the need for cultivation of the soil by sowing of a new crop directly into the previous crop stubble.
Ploughing and cultivation are huge problems for invertebrate populations. Every time a field is ploughed, earthworm numbers are decimated. Nicholas also cites modern power harrows, used to create a fine till for sowing crops, as being hugely damaging as a whole.
Direct drilling doesn’t cause such devastation to invertebrates, and Nicholas has noticed improvements at all seasons. “On every field we’ve direct drilled we’ve had lapwings nesting,” he says, adding that in winter the fields are “full of lapwings, [European] Golden Plovers, thrushes and other species.” Changing farming methods and lessening the intensity of land management are just part of the key to allowing wildlife to recover, and Nicholas is quick to point out the importance of habitat creation. “Every fen farmer should have water on their land,” he gives as an example. “Dig a pond, widen a dyke!”
Water of life
One clear feature across Nicholas’s farm is just how many ponds, scrapes and reservoirs he has constructed. This includes a 15-ha wetland at Baston
Fen, which has quickly become an important sanctuary for breeding and migrant waders – 20 species recorded since the beginning of 2020 – and other waterbirds, with Eurasian Spoonbill and Garganey seen annually. A nearby reservoir supported more than 40 pairs of Common Tern and 250 pairs of Black-headed Gull this summer.
But Nicholas believes it’s more difficult to manage a farm for wildlife in 2021 that it was 30 years ago, despite our knowledge and understanding having been much improved and plenty of political rhetoric about combating biodiversity loss and climate change. For example, he mentions that it is now a much greater challenge to get approved for countryside stewardship schemes – even those as trivial as the ones for six-metre margins.
Ultimately Nicholas feels that the evidence of decline shown by many species across his farm hint at the wider malaise in the British countryside, and has a feeling that he cannot do it on his own. A systematic, landscape-scale switch to more wildlife-friendly methods is essential to ensure the future health of our farmland birds.
But this will require incentives, as he acknowledges that many farmers simply aren’t interested otherwise; he describes himself as “lucky” to have his shared passions. “I’ve spent a fortune on wildlife,” he says with a wry smile. It’s hard to imagine anyone giving what he has without an underlying passion for nature, and sadly farmers with such a love form a minority.
For now, Nicholas’s hard work continues at Vine House Farm. The bird food business goes from strength to strength – he estimates that 4,000 tons of seed is sold annually – with a brandnew shop and café now open at Deeping St Nicholas. A percentage of each sale is donated to the Wildlife Trusts, and Nicholas proudly mentions that £2 million has been given back to the charity since the scheme began. Wildlife has undoubtedly benefited from Nicholas’s decades-long efforts, but the baton must be picked up by others to generate a wider recovery across our isles.