St Albans farmer boosts bird numbers

Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust applauds St Albans farmer for throwing lifeline to birds

A ST ALBANS farm located just 20 miles from the United Kingdom’s capital city now attracts nearly 80 species of bird including the globally threatened yellow wagtail through a variety of environmental initiatives.

Bill Barr, of Dane End Farm, Redbourn Road, St Albans, said he was, “very proud of what we have achieved” after successfully providing a range of foraging and breeding sites for 76 bird species, 33 of which are of conservation concern, on the 650-acre property. He said: “We would have had half of that [number of species] initially.”

Bill and his wife Val have been tenant farmers on the Crown Estate for more than 30 years.

He explained that they had planted about 8,000 hedge plants to provide a natural habitat for birds and six-metre-wide grass margins near crops.

Bill joked that “our hedges are the most untidy in the world because we can only cut them twice in five years, when there are no birds nesting.” The hedges are a mix of blackthorn, dogwood, hazel and quickthorn, as suggested by Natural England, the government’s advisor on the natural environment.

The Barrs said they were encouraged to provide for a rich diversity of wildlife through the former Countryside Stewardship Scheme, which offered taxpayer-funded financial assistance to landowners and farmers actively conserving the countryside.

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Bill said: “There is a perception that farmers are desecrating hedges and polluting fields with chemicals and pesticides, and this could not be further from the truth.

“Farmers today are very aware of the environment and as pesticides and fertilisers are very expensive to use, they are only used in small quantities.”

The grass margins, which cannot be driven upon or have crops grown among them, contain the likes of linseed, rye, barley and rape to provide a mix of food for wild birds. Dane End Farm also has 50 skylark plots, which are six-metre-by-six-metre unsown plots among fields of wheat.

Bill said: “Eight per cent of our arable land is now in an environmental scheme, which is a fair proportion.”

The couple have also established wet features, such as ponds and scrapes – shallow depressions with sloping sides – for birds. This autumn they will introduce margins of meadow flowers too.

However the flipside of providing such areas is that vital land is taken from food production. Bill admitted: “I’m taking land out of production just when it’s needed. It’s at a time when food security is high on the government agenda.”

The couple’s efforts have been applauded by Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust in St Albans. Communications officer Sarah Buckingham said: “It sounds like Bill has done great work to encourage the birds at Dane End Farm. The UK has lost two million skylarks in the last 25 years, one of our most popular farmland birds, so we were particularly encouraged to hear that Bill has found space on his farm for skylark plots.”

She said there had been a 50 per cent decline in farmland birds since 1970.

n If you are a local wildlife site owner and would like to join a network of owners to share best practice and gain advice on how to manage your land for wildlife, contact Carol Lodge at the Trust on 01727 858901 or see

n The RSPB has welcomed the Government’s Natural Environment White Paper, released last week, which lays out plans for nature improvement areas. The paper proposes the formation of a stakeholder panel including representatives from government, industry and environment groups to look at how food production can be increased while providing wildlife habitats in the countryside.

n New figures from Natural England show that more fields than ever before are being managed to halt the decline in farmland bird populations. More than 152,000 hectares of arable farmland now provide vital winter food and habitat through farmers adopting bird-friendly measures as part of their Environmental Stewardship (ES) agreements.