Natural England - South West Farmland Bird Initiative (SWFBI)

South West Farmland Bird Initiative (SWFBI)

The South West Farmland Bird Initiative is working closely with farmers to stabilise and increase the numbers of farmland birds and rare arable plants.

South West Farmland Birds Initiative

Read the latest update: (364kb)pdf document - June 2011

This exciting Natural England led partnership initiative has been set up to specifically help reverse the decline of farmland birds across Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Dorset, areas which are recognised as being of national importance for farmland birds.

The decline in farmland wildlife over the last forty years has been well documented and the disappearance of many once-familiar farmland bird species from the farmed landscape is indicative of this decline. Birds like the lapwing and the grey partridge have been lost now from large parts of the English countryside. Reversing the declines in farmland birds and other wildlife associated with arable landscapes is now one of the great nature conservation challenges we face.

The project concentrates on six bird species, the ‘Arable 6’, and hotspots for arable plants. The ‘Arable 6’ are Grey partridge, Lapwing, Turtle dove, Yellow wagtail, Tree sparrow and Corn bunting. These are all farmland specialists and have undergone the most severe declines. Providing habitat for these birds will also have major benefits for other farmland species like the Skylark, Yellowhammer and Brown hare, and in many cases also provide conditions that will help rare arable plants.

Through the use of agri-environment schemes or independently, land managers are encouraged to adopt measures that provide nesting habitat, summer and winter food (the ‘Big 3’) for farmland birds.

In ‘hot-spot’ areas for rare arable plants, the initiative is promoting measures such as cultivation of headlands to encourage the germination of some of the UK’s scarcest plants.

How can the South West Farmland Bird Initiative help you?

Across the Project areas the Initiative offers free one-to-one advice on:

  • Entry Level and Higher Level Stewardship agreements to provide the 'Big 3' for farmland birds and/or conditions for arable plants, and to maximise income from agri-environment schemes.

  • Management of arable options in existing Stewardship agreements, including amendments, to give the best habitat for farmland birds and arable plants.

  • Adapting farming methods or incorporating new features to give better bird and plant habitats, without compromising the profitability of the farm.

  • The projects will provide training days for farmers, agronomists, advisers and agents on the best ways of farming alongside farmland birds and rare arable plants.

  • Farm surveys for farmland birds and arable plants will also be available in some cases.

Contact details

There are four sister projects working together under the umbrella of the initiative. Each is led by a different partner organisation, each with a dedicated project officer and with each giving practical advice to farmers, how they can best help farmland birds and the plants and animals associated with the arable landscape.

For further information or advice, or to make an appointment, please contact:

Cotswolds Farmland Bird project:

North Wessex Downs Farmland Bird Project:

South Wiltshire Farmland Bird Project:

Dorset Arable Project:

James Phillips, Project Manager:

Why is arable wildlife important?

Farmland birds are a good indicator of the level of biodiversity on farms, as they are comparatively high up the food chain. If their populations are thriving it indicates the lower end of the food chain is also in good condition. Conservation of rare arable plants is important to help prevent extinction of some species from Wiltshire and the UK. They also provide seed and insect rich habitat to support the whole food chain.

Since the 1970s the UK populations of many of our farmland birds have been in steep decline. In the South West, farmland bird numbers fell by 45% between 1970 and 1994, and a further 8% between 1994 and 2007. Populations of arable plants have declined dramatically over the past 60 years, and are now viewed as our rarest group of plants in the UK.

Research has shown that if sufficient quantities of the ‘Big 3’ are provided for farmland birds and correct management is carried out for arable plants to germinate, the trends can be reversed. These measures can work alongside existing farming practices, utilizing options available under Environmental Stewardship.

The ‘Big 3’

Farmland birds require three things in order to thrive. These are:

Nesting habitat: This varies between species, but needs to be safe and secure and may be in the middle of a field, field margins, in hedges or trees.

Summer food: A regular supply of insects and other invertebrates are critical food sources for developing chicks and adults throughout the summer.

Winter food: Many farmland birds rely on seeds and so an abundant source of seed food is needed throughout the winter months.

What do we want to achieve? - The Farmland Bird Package

To reverse the decline of farmland birds we need to restore arable habitats that have been lost from the wider countryside. Working together in partnership and using the best research, evidence and experience to date, Natural England, the RSPB, Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) and Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG) have developed an evidence based package of simple measures to deliver the minimum amount of habitat needed.

Environmental Stewardship

Environmental Stewardship (ES) is the key delivery mechanism for reversing the decline in farmland birds. Certain ES scheme options within both Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) and Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) have been designed to replicate the ‘big-three’ in-field habitats that have been lost to farmland birds. The farmland bird package as set out below, focuses on those ES options that deliver the most benefit for farmland birds.

The Farmland Bird Package

If farmers can do the following three things using in-field ELS and/or HLS options per 100 ha of arable farmland, then farmland birds will thrive on their farms:

ELS and HLS Farmland Bird packages.

ResourceES optionsELS (minimum per 100 ha)HLS (minimum per 100 ha)
Winter seed food

Wild bird mixture or weed-rich stubble (or a combination)

2 ha
5-10 ha

2 ha
5-10 ha

Spring-summer invertebrate food

Conservation headlands, low input spring cerials, field corners, beetle banks, blocks/strips of nectar mix/flower-rich margins

1 ha2-3 ha
Places to nest in-fieldSkylark plots Fallow plots

1 ha

2 ha
(if appropriate)

By choosing the right options, locating them in the right place and managing them effectively farmers can make a real difference for farmland birds.

Research and past experience shows that farmland bird populations can respond positively and quickly when these simple measures are put in place. These measures can work alongside existing farm practices and fit with farm businesses.

Which farmland birds need our help?

Those species of farmland bird associated with arable farmland have been particularly affected by the loss of the ‘big three’ habitats. In particular there are 10 species of farmland bird that need our help the most:

Farmland birds

             Farmland birds                        Farmland birds                   Farmland birds


         Farmland birds   

(follow the below links for more information)

Lapwingexternal link

Yellow Wagtail (link not yet available)

Turtle Doveexternal link

Corn Buntingexternal link

Tree Sparrowexternal link

Grey Partridgeexternal link

Linnetexternal link

Reed Buntingexternal link

Yellowhammerexternal link

Skylarkexternal link

ELS Renewals Advice

Farmers, land managers and farm advisers all have a part to play in ensuring a healthy natural environment which is essential for sustainable farming.

A series of four leaflets is now available to show how to make the most of Entry Level Stewardship options for farmland birds, farm wildlife, cleaner water, healthier soil and the historic environment. Produced by Natural England, in conjunction with the Campaign for the Farmed Environment and a number of partner organisations, the leaflets are aimed at farmers joining ELS or renewing existing agreements.

Farming for birdsexternal link

Farming for Wildlifeexternal link

Farming for cleaner water and healthier soilexternal link

Farming for the Historic Environmentexternal link

SWFBI partner logos

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