Page last updated at 23:04 GMT, Friday, 1 May 2009 00:04 UK

Farmers 'key to halting bird decline'

By Alex Bushill
BBC News, in Dorset

The lapwing is one of the farmland birds most at risk

Lush, soft and undulating, the rolling hills near Blandford Forum reveal an unrivalled view of rural Britain.

A patchwork of farmers' fields, this is England's green and pleasant land. Or so we'd like to think.

For our farmland birds this is hostile terrain - their numbers have halved over the last 30 years.

The intensification of modern farming has robbed them of nesting grounds and habitat.

That's why Natural England is spending nearly £500,000 to encourage farmers to farm with wildlife in mind.

As a senior project manager, it is James Phillips' job to make it work and he's clear who he needs to convince.

"Farmers hold the key to reversing the historic decline of birds reliant on arable farming," he says.

"This is a pioneering project. We'll be targeting 400,000 hectares across Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and Dorset."

I enjoy this aspect of my work more than the farming now
Paul Millard, farmer

'Incredible sight'

The results are clear at farms like Paul Millard's outside the Dorset village of Sutton Waldron.

He already receives EU money in exchange for leaving areas fallow for nesting birds, as well as weedy, grassy verges to encourage insect life for the birds to feed on.

He has already seen a range of animals returning to his land and plans to encourage even more to join them with the help of this initiative.

"I enjoy this aspect of my work more than the farming now," Paul says, looking through a pair of binoculars.

"I can see a pair of nesting lapwings. At least 20 brown hares running around, some of them are even boxing now. It's an incredible sight and makes me proud."

To help farmers like Paul, a team of dedicated conservationists will be on hand to give practical advice, like how to seed fields with a mix of wild flowers.

Ruth Barrett - one of those new advisors - describes one such field.

"We have a quinoa and kale mixture here," she says. "This provides seeds over the winter for birds to eat when there really is nothing else about. It really is a hungry time for birdlife."

These species are an important indicator of the ecological health of the wider countryside
Paul Christensen, Natural England

The Natural England project is aimed at increasing the population of several nationally important bird species in particular - the lapwing, turtle dove, yellow wagtail, tree sparrow and corn bunting.

For Paul Christensen, the body's chairman, it is essential: "Reversing the decline in farmland birds such as corn buntings is crucial, not just for its own sake, but because these species are an important indicator of the ecological health of the wider countryside.

"This is the first time that farmers and conservationists have come together with the common aim of increasing specific bird populations across such a large area."

Every small measure helps, gradually adapting the landscape into a sanctuary and transforming farmers into custodians of both the countryside and our wildlife.

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