All posts by Monica Frisch

Let’s talk birds and farming

Travel by train back from King’s Cross to the edge of Cambridge and our project area and you see just three main agricultural crops: winter wheat, winter barley and winter oilseed rape. Occasionally there is a crop of winter beans or spring barley. Winter crops predominate – crops that are sown in September or October and harvested the following autumn. Winter crops mean no over-winter stubble. No weedy stubbles means less winter food for wildlife. The fields are huge; there are no conservation headlands and hedges are small and tightly cut.

Fly into Stansted, look down on the fields of winter wheat in Essex and South Cambs and look for skylark conservation patches – small bare patches of ground where the seed drill was raised for a few seconds during sowing to provide skylark nest sites and you will see – none. The picture is a hostile farming environment to the detriment of biodiversity and bio-abundance of our local countryside.

It is difficult to describe the changes in the countryside surrounding our project area without sounding critical of farming and farmers. I try to avoid this, but it’s difficult to be a neutral about our countryside neighbourhood that has impoverished wildlife. Traditional crop rotations have been changed in the effort to increase profitability and soil structures are suffering. Crop yields using new varieties have changed little over the last 10 years and the push for greater productivity has encouraged the increased use of chemicals to boost performance. Black Grass (Alopecurus myosuroides) has become a serious competitor to winter cereals; headlands have been sprayed with herbicides to eradicate volunteer plants but the Black Grass has fought back and become resistant to some herbicides. Some crops of winter wheat look like fields of Black Grass. Insect pests have been controlled by systemic non-selective insecticides that remove target species and most others.

Yellow Wagtail (Red Listed)

 House Sparrow (Red Listed)

Neonics” (neonicotinoid) insecticides have been banned on Oilseed Rape to control cabbage stem flea beetle. This insect has become such a serious pest after a succession of mild winters and crop rotations of just winter wheat and winter oilseed rape, that many growers were unable to establish the crop for this harvest year. “Neonics” have been banned on all flowering crops to protect bees, but they can still be used on non-flowering crops such as sugar beet. Ask farmers, the seed trade and the agrochemical industries if “neonics” should be banned for causing a collapse in our countryside insect life and they will cite papers disputing the evidence which conservationists assert is incontrovertible, according to their research. It’s not just lowland arable farming; go to our uplands and all you see are sheep, and more sheep, and the occasional blocks of Corsican pine.

Anecdotal evidence from amateur naturalists, like ourselves, has noted the disappearance of bees and the general lack of insect abundance. What happens in the countryside affects us townies!

The Red List contains birds of conservation concern whose population has declined by 50% in the last 30 years and shows no sign of increasing. Nine are species of our resident farmland birds. This decline coincides with the switch to winter cropping and the loss of over-winter stubbles that provided a source of essential winter food. A recent winter survey (2017-2018) on a farm in the north of our project area showed that most of the farmland birds: Linnets, Yellowhammers, Grey Partridges – birds on the Red List – were concentrated on the only fields on the farm that had over-winter stubble. Two years earlier five pairs of Lapwings (another Red Listed species) attempted to nest there on over wintered stubbles – the first time for about 50 years. I believe lack of winter feed has caused the extinction of the rural House Sparrow (Red Listed) which used to nest in hedgerows in small colonies of untidy domed nests in our project area.

It’s not all bad news. The RSPB’s Hope Farm at Boxworth and Robin Page’s Countryside Restoration project at Barton have shown that you can run commercial farms and increase the number and diversity of farmland birds. To do that you must also provide a winter food supply and a rich and diverse insect fauna throughout the year– nestlings and young birds need a high protein rich insect diet to fledge and thrive. (Woodpigeons are the exception!)

Nine Wells, in our project area has, probably, the highest concentration of Grey Partridges in the County but this is threatened by the growth of Addenbrooke’s. The NIAB’s farm in the north of our project area has seeded permanent flower-rich field margins, ditches are only trimmed and cleared in winter and hedges are cut on a three-year cycle. This farm has one of the highest farmland breeding populations of Skylarks (Red Listed) in the country and breeding Yellow Wagtails (Red Listed) have returned. Quy Estates, on the edge of our project area, manage Wilbraham Fen and the traditional sheep grazing meadows nearby. It is probably the southern-most remnant of the Great Fen and must be one of the most interesting wetlands that is not a formal nature reserve.

Lapwing (Red Listed)

Wheatear (not Red Listed!)
birds of the uplands

The most exciting development is the Red List Revival project pioneered by Edward Darling on his farm near Therfield heath. He began this project to conserve bird species on his own farm and to encourage neighbouring farmers to do the same. Farms are surveyed twice a year during the breeding season (May/June) using the British Trust for Ornithology transect method and farms are awarded accolades for increasing bio-diversity, especially the birds.

But as townies we must not be hypocritical. We cannot criticise farmers if we have an arsenal of chemicals in our own garden sheds to kill slugs, snails, insects – anything that might maul, chew or consume our garden plants and vegetables. Cut a small access hole in the bottom of the garden fence and let the hedgehogs in!

Bob Jarman

8th June 2018

May birds (not May Balls)!

An Oystercatcher over Cambridge Station during morning rush hour on 8th May was unusual and seeing three flying south over Nuttings Road on May 26th (Iain Webb) was even more unusual. They might be visiting the new open water site at Hobson’s Park near Great Kneighton.

Two Common Terns flew over King’s Parade on 12th May but only one of the returning pair that often feed along Riverside and the river straights to Fen Ditton appears to have returned this year; it seems to have lost its partner over winter or during the return migration. The bird has now moved on and we may have lost our Common Terns this year. First year birds remain on their wintering grounds off West Africa and return in their second year so birds may be back next year.

Blackcaps are very common singing throughout our project area but Common Whitethroats are scarce this year. I have heard as many Lesser Whitethroats in our project area as Common Whitethroats – this is very unusual; in Ditton Meadow in the path of the Chisholm cycle trail a hawthorn bush has both species singing. The web site is an excellent source of recorded bird song.

Swifts were later to return this year but by mid-month had arrived in numbers; I have an irrational fear that one year they just might not return and life will never be the same without them!

The House Martin colony at Addenbrooke’s Hospital is in full swing. It’s difficult, at this stage, to work out how many nests are being actively used but a watch in mid-May counted 73.

A Black Kite over Clarendon Street on 20th may not be as unusual as seems; not far away one was claimed over Bar Hill Golf Course on Friday 11th May. Kites over our study area are not unusual and have bred. A Red Kite was seen trailing a Peregrine that had a pigeon kill over the junction of Gilbert Road with Histon Road at roof-top height. The Kite was hoping the Peregrine would drop its kill so it could sweep down and claim the carrion.

The City Peregrines were filmed feeding two chicks in mid-May (twitter: @CambPeregrines) and the other breeding pair has at least one chick. A Kestrel that roosts against the chimney pots at the top of Benson Street occasionally hovers over the rear gardens of the terraced houses and Histon Road Cemetery.

The female peregrine at the City Centre site – the male is about a third smaller
with bars on its breast that do not reach across its chest

Part of Midsummer Common has been mown but the nettle patches have been left intact as a food source for the larvae of some of our declining butterfly species such as Red Admiral, Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell. Similarly, the grass cutting in St Andrews Church graveyard in Chesterton has left patches of the Wild Clary (Salvia verbenaca) standing.

Crow finds bread in Hawthorn Road

Crow drops bread in nearby puddle to make it easier to digest!

Spotted Flycatchers are a seriously declining summer visitor. The Cambridgeshire Bird Club is surveying them across the County (any sightings, please, to: They used to breed off Huntingdon Road and in the Botanic Gardens in the 1980s but disappeared when the Elms went. There is perhaps one pair in the very south east of our project area but they seem to be absent from other suitable locations – College gardens, riverside woodlands and large private garden in the south of our study area.

Brown Hares at a farm site in the north of our project area

Wild Clary in St Andrew’s Churchyard, Chesterton

A small remaining population of Common Lizards in the north of our project area in Orchard Park (formerly Arbury Park) is under threat from building development. It is hoped that the builders will hold off so that as many lizards as possible can be caught and transferred to a site about a mile away to live in the stone boulder supports of a farm road over the A14.

An adult Cormorant of the continental race in the Cam at Fen Ditton with its grey neck “shawl”. This race has colonised the south of England in recent years. The native race is all black and breeds on the sea cliffs in the north and west of the UK. The continental race nests in trees but none, as yet, in our project area. It is this race that roosts in winter in the willows along Riverside.

Bob Jarman

29th May 2018


An abundance of Blackcaps but where are the Whitethroats?

Seem to be Blackcaps singing everywhere, front gardens and back gardens, anywhere where there is some scrub or overgrown shrubs. But what has happened to Common Whitethroats? At a farm site on the northern edge of our project area I have often counted 10-18 singing males by now but so far have counted just one! I have heard more Lesser Whitethroats this spring than Common Whitethroats. Sedge and Reed Warblers also seem to be in short supply. This spring has been two hot days followed by a thunderstorm then cold and rain. It’s one of the wettest, most dismal, springs I can remember!

The Kingfisher reported over Magdalene Street Bridge in my last blog flew over the bridge, not under it, because the water level under the bridge was too high!

Now is time to look for Wheatears of the Greenland race on Trumpington Meadows and other open fields. They have the longest migration of any European passerine summer visitor and when they leave the UK they head out across the North Atlantic to their breeding grounds in Greenland.

In the latest edition of British Birds (May 2018. Vol 111 pp 250 – 263) there is an article about white feathers in black birds; not just Blackbirds but black birds! The causes might include nutrient deficiency; I have a distinctive male Blackbird in my Chesterton garden with a small white shoulder patch. The photograph below was taken on 2nd April and shows it feeding young in the neighbour’s shrub. The eggs were probably laid 14-16 days earlier when it was very cold; I have not seen any young birds so assume the nest was sadly overwhelmed by the rains. This male Blackbird is distinctive and patrols a territory of about 100 m x 100 m – 1 hectare. It’s is not the only male Blackbird in this area and there are frequent territorial disputes.

Blackbird with white shoulder patch

Portrait of city Kingfisher
by Rhona Watson

I think I have located about 20 Mistle Thrush territories – the most recent from Castle mound. They are early nesters and incubation must have coincided with the heavy rains; I think 1-2 sighting may be duplicates and include birds have disbursed after incubation failure and counted twice at nearby sites.