Farmland birds coping well with wind farms

Yellowhammer - safe from wind farms?

With conservationists concerned with the impact of wind farms on water birds and raptors in coastal and upland areas, there are increasing numbers of applications to site turbines on farmland. What effect will this socially divisive renewable energy technology have on the avian communities that inhabit low-lying, inland areas?

Conservationists who are for whatever reason against wind farms have raised objections to turbines being sited pretty much anywhere. Take David Bellamy, for example:

“It’s not a green form of energy, it’s chopping birds up, it’s chopping bats up and it is ruining a lot of people’s lifestyles.”

Dr Bellamy has never been one to let the facts get in the way of a good rant, and my inclusion of this quote could be construed as entirely gratuitous. So be it; the man is a figure of fun.

A recent study by ecologists at Newcastle University in England’s north east has shown that wind farms pose less of a threat to farmland birds than previously feared. Mark Whittingham and his colleagues looked at around 3,000 birds from 23 species living on arable farmland around two wind farms in the East Anglian Fens. The birds studied included five so-called red-listed species of high conservation concern – yellowhammer, tree sparrow, corn bunting, skylark and reed bunting.

Writing in the Journal of Applied Ecology, Dr Whittingham, together with Claire Devereux and Matthew Denny, says that the Fenland wind turbines had no effect on the distribution of seed-eating birds, crows, game birds and skylarks. Only common pheasants – the largest and least manoeuvrable species – were affected:

“This is the first evidence suggesting that the present and future location of large numbers of wind turbines on European farmland is unlikely to have detrimental effects on farmland birds. This should be welcome news for nature conservationists, wind energy companies and policy makers.”

To which we should add farmers, who derive valuable income from turbines sited on their land.

Important to note is that Whittingham’s research was conducted in the winter. He is currently looking to repeat the study during the breeding season, when turbine noise might interfere with mating behaviour. However, studies of urban birds have shown that they can quickly adapt to noisy environments by increasing their own volume, and raising the pitch of their song to break through the low rumble of city life. It will be interesting to see how farmland birds manage to adjust to a rapidly changing rural environment.