Operation Hungry Gap – Jersey birds require desperate measures in desperate times

Linnet 3. Photo by Mick DrydenBy Cris Sellarés

Feeling cold? A bit hungry? Then you can probably empathise with the thousands of small birds out there struggling to survive the winter. You probably put some food too in your garden to help them, and it’s a good thing you did, for at a time when their calorie requirements increase in order to keep warm, it is also a time when there is less food available in the form of insects, seeds and fruits.

So, that’s good for your robins, blackbirds, blue tits and the sparrows (the last of which unfortunately are on the Jersey Red List and need all the help they can get). But, what about the other birds that won’t come to your garden, the ones traditionally associated with farmland?

Farmland birds such as the skylark, linnet and meadow pipit are suffering amongst the steepest declines of all birds across Europe, and their continuing survival is in jeopardy due to lack of food in the agricultural land they inhabit. In the past, spilt grain from less effective machinery, stubble fields left until the spring and land rotation would have kept them going, but these features are not so common in modern farming. Even without their traditional food sources, these birds won’t, however, unfortunately, be venturing into a garden to take advantage of your generosity.

In order to help these birds survive the winter, conservationists work with farmers to plant winter bird crops, and aim to provide the birds with seeds and cereals from November until March-April, when invertebrates and other natural sources of food start to re-appear (read more here and here). But even then, a bad combination of a long winter and a cold spring might leave a ‘hungry gap’, when birds struggle to find food anywhere.

In Jersey, this ‘hungry gap’ really lives up to its dreadful name and occurs as early as February, as even the most co-operative, wildlife-loving farmer that has grown winter bird crops, needs to plough his fields in the New Year to plant potatoes. This means that all the resources for the birds disappear suddenly and at the worst of times – about now. Its around now too that many other fields around the Island disappear under polythene offering even less hope in these fields for birds to find much-needed food.

La Coupe 7

So, how do you feed the birds out in the farmland? The solution is to feed them yourself, by hand, like you would do in your garden but on a much larger scale. This involves pouring big quantities of food at a designated site, at regular intervals throughout the winter. The type of food we use is typically a high-energy, husk-free mixture of seeds and grains in quantities varying between 20-60kg, put down once or twice a week, usually by a dry track next to a suitable hedge.

Birds On The Edge has been pioneering farmland feeding stations in the Island for the last two years and learning how to best manage them. Last year we implemented a feeding station at the conservation area of Sorel, and this year we have tried them at another three sites with positive results.

These feeding stations are located at existing conservation sites with winter crops, so that the birds don’t have to travel far to find the new food when the fields are ploughed. We start feeding in early January before ploughing so that birds get used to feeding from the site, and will put out food then until mid to late-April. We move the spot where the food is put down regularly, to prevent build up of grain that may attract pests. However, so far, all the food has disappeared within a couple of days.

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Farmland feeding stations have been tried and tested in England with positive results, and farmers get subsidies from Natural England to manage stations on their land. Here the Jersey Ecology Fund sponsored our very own ‘Operation Hungry Gap’ in 2014, and a private donor recently funded it for 2015. The other difference between here and England is that, whilst farmers usually put down grain from the back of their pick-ups or tractors, here we do it by hand and shoulder!

This might seem like a last-resort solution, but as farmland birds continue to decline across Europe and the Channel Islands, any measure that can help them make it through the winter could mean the difference between starving to death or surviving to see another spring full of possibilities.

The full report on the 2014 Operation Hungry Gap can be downloaded here

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