Back from the brink

Improving the wildlife habitat at one of Europe's most famous bird-watching sites has been the life's work of a farmer. Chris Berry reports.

Birds are dear to the heart of Simon Waines. He farms at Flamborough Head, the eight-mile headland which is a honeypot for ornithologists and is a Special Area of Conservation.

"I remember when my father would show me skylarks, lapwings and linnets' nests," says Simon. "As I was growing up I lost interest. When my children came along I wanted to show them what he had shown me, but because farming practices had changed the birds were no longer there. Farmers had switched from spring sown crops to winter grown corn and spring nesting birds want to be in spring sown crops."

What changed things was the Government's initiative to reward farmers for being "guardians of the countryside" through the Countryside Stewardship Scheme. "Birds were still here in massive numbers but they just weren't breeding. They were simply passing through. When the scheme came in that's when I decided it was maybe time we reversed things a bit. We took some of our arable land out of production, putting it into what were called Arable Reversion Schemes. It basically meant that we let nature take over."

The results have vindicated Simon's decision. In the past five years and via a new stewardship scheme (funded now by Natural England) his efforts have led to great personal satisfaction.

'We have seen a big increase in lapwings, sea birds and skylarks. We sow a dedicated crop to feed the skylarks over winter and spring and we had a dozen pairs of lapwings breed here last year. The skylarks didn't really need a lot of encouragement to come back, they just wanted the right habitat. I have been particularly pleased to see the corn buntings coming back too."

Simon joined the new Higher Level Scheme of what was then the new Environmental Stewardship Scheme in 2006. This saw all of the farmers in the area working more closely to create the right conditions for Flamborough's renowned bird population.

"One of the ideas is to create corridors of farms linking with each other and there are now a number of us here on Flamborough Head right through to Dane's Dyke and Bempton who meet up regularly. The scheme also encourages the maintenance of the old 'ridge and furrow' ploughing system through grass fields to ensure it is still visible. This also plays its part in improving the birds' habitat."

Head Farm is shared equally between Simon and his brother Peter. Its location is a blessing in terms of its international popularity among ornithologists, walkers and tourists. But this can cause a few headaches. All of the fields which make up their 400 acres go to the cliff edge with a 150-200ft drop along its entire stretch.

"It might be okay for the birds on the cliffs but it can be a little scary at times for us. It is quite challenging land, with some of it being extremely severe. At one end of the field of corn we can get four tonnes to the acre. At the cliff top you're lucky if you still have a crop there. But on the whole it grows good quality wheat and malting barley."

The Waines' moved out of beef herd as the walkers moved in. "We went out of cattle five years ago. It has become very public up here with so much access. The Heritage Coast status brought about footpaths on the clifftop and a lot of stiles and steps have been put in as well. There also seems to have been a big increase in organised walking. Ornithology and bird-watching has gained a lot of popularity and we get an awful lot of visitors cutting across the fields. We were finding that our cattle used to go AWOL on a number of occasions so when the new Higher Level Scheme came in with its bigger emphasis on more managed grazing schemes we moved out of cattle and into sheep. They're a lot easier to move around."

Farmers on Flamborough Head once had a history of farming the cliffs themselves. Years ago birds' eggs from Flamborough were a delicacy destined for restaurants in London and Paris. Farmers would risk life and limb as "climmers" balancing precariously on the chalk cliffs taking an egg out of each nest where there were two or more. Simon's family were climmers.

"It was outlawed in the 1960s but it was a bit of a tradition here. Each farmer had his own part of cliff land and each used to harvest seagull eggs. In the spring of each year the climmers would clean the cliffs of the loose chalk. When they took the eggs from the nests they would either be put on a train at the old Flamborough station or Bridlington station and despatched to the top restaurants. It became a useful supplement to their income. I remember my grandfather would whisk them up in a mug and drink them."

The harvesting of the eggs from the climmers also brought about another mini-industry with avid egg collectors making their way to Flamborough to pay small fortunes for any seagull egg that deviated from the norm.

Today Simon's interest is in seeing even more of the breeding birds returning. "I always think we are quite privileged to be here. It's a unique area and you can get sentimental about it. It's nice to know we have played our small part in bringing back what I was shown as a child."

YP MAG 22/1/11