Saturday, 7 January 2012

The Winter Roosts of Starlings

The winter roosts of starlings on the Somerset Levels have in recent years become a national phenomenon, even featuring on television advertisements. But, as so often happens, this spectacle has become a double edged sword because of the nuisance the birds can cause when they congregate to feed during the day at nearby farms.

It may come as a surprise to many that despite the huge numbers of birds we see during the winter, there is concern about the Starling population in this country. Indeed it has been placed, along with 51 other species on the “red list” by the UK’s leading bird conservation organisations.

The reason for this categorisation is largely because of the decline in the UK breeding population of which I have personal experience. For instance I can remember as a child being woken up by starlings scrabbling beneath the tiles on the roof above my bedroom where they were nesting and yet I cannot remember the last time I saw a starling nesting in such a manner in this area.

So there seems no doubt that the breeding population in this country has certainly declined, but the birds we see here in the winter are largely migrants from northern continental Europe and it is this disconnect between the huge numbers we see and the declining UK population which confuses many people.

Interesting as this may be, it does not get to grips with the problem we are now witnessing in this area where huge flocks of starlings are descending daily on some farms, giving rise to concerns regarding livestock feed contamination and possibly even contamination of human food products such as milk. Indeed one local farmer has claimed he has lost a significant number of livestock, and money as a direct result of the starlings. This gave rise to David Heath, MP for Somerton and Frome asking questions on the subject in Parliament.

The problem is that the Starlings are attracted to the UK because of our relatively mild winters and the reed beds on the Somerset levels provide ideal roosting sites from where the birds disperse in to the surrounding countryside in huge numbers to feed by day. As the number of farms has reduced in recent years, those that remain have often become bigger and now they provide ideal feeding grounds for huge flocks of starlings.

Dairy farms in particular are vulnerable to “attack” because they often feed their cattle with a “total mixed ration” where silage is mixed with other feedstuffs to provide the cows with a balanced “meal” providing all the necessary nutrients in the correct proportions. However, the starlings also seem to thrive on such rations and where the feed is based on maize silage in particular the starlings accumulate in huge numbers feeding in close proximity to the cows and leaving their faeces everywhere, including in the feed.

Anyone who has been under a large flock of starlings when it flies over will realise they do produce a fair amount of droppings and these may not only contaminate feed but also drinking water which many farmers are now harvesting off their roofs.

So, it is interesting to learn that DairyCo, which is a not-for-profit organisation working on behalf of, and funded by Britain's dairy farmers, has awarded a grant to local independent dairy specialists, Kingshay to investigate ways of evaluating and reducing the impact of starlings on dairy herds.

Kingshay, based at West Bradley state that “most say that maize silage is the magnet that attracts birds but some farmers have succeeded in reducing starling invasions on their farms and we need to investigate the combination of factors behind their success.”

So we await the outcome of their report with interest and in this context Kingshay would be pleased to hear from any farmers who have successfully reduced the starling problem on their farm without adversely affecting the bird population. Kingshay can be contacted on 01458 851555.

James Stephen MRICS FAAV
Rural Practice Chartered Surveyor, Wells

T: 01749 683381

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