14 March 2023

Wildlife ‘thriving’ thanks to sensitive farming in Gilbert White’s backyard

14 March 2023

Wildlife ranging from the harvest mouse to barn owls is thriving in a region made famous by Britain’s first ecologist Gilbert White and the novelist Jane Austen.

A five-year study of the wildlife around Selborne, Hampshire, has recorded about 10,000 species including 114 different bird species – just short of the 120 recorded by White in the 18th century and across a much wider area.

A team of volunteers took part in the survey of the 5,600 hectares Selborne Landscape Partnership (SLP), which has been the focus of a 10-year project involving local farmers and land managers to create a network of wildlife habitats and to promote nature-friendly food production.

The survey is the most comprehensive since White’s studies almost 250 years ago that culminated in The Natural History Of Selborne, which was first published in 1789 and has since run to nearly 300 editions worldwide.

His works transformed the way people viewed the natural world and have influenced naturalists from Charles Darwin to Sir David Attenborough, who this week warned about dangers to the biodiversity of the United Kingdom.

Debbie Miller, lead author of the report, said: “We hear a lot of negativity about the state of Britain’s biodiversity, so it’s nice to share some really positive news that wildlife is flourishing on farms here in the Selborne Landscape Partnership.

“It’s thriving because the area is being managed sensitively to retain and restore a range of habitats for farmland wildlife, creating greater connectivity across farm boundaries.”

Key findings of the survey include several bird species being discovered in the area that White did not spot including Egyptian goose, mandarin duck, red-legged partridge, white stork and little owl.

It’s thriving because the area is being managed sensitively to retain and restore a range of habitats for farmland wildlife

A total of 79 barn owl chicks were recorded between 2017 and 2021 which have benefited from the installation of 53 nesting boxes and the creation of 93 miles of tussocky grass margins across the region.

A South Downs National Park Authority spokesman said that key species such as the harvest mouse, which was first identified by White as a distinct species, had been targeted in the area.

He said: “Changes in hedge-cutting practices have created ideal habitat conditions for the brown hairstreak butterfly, enabling its recovery across the area.

“Farmland birds such as yellowhammers, linnets and skylarks are benefiting from conservation measures implemented by the group, such as the provision of 77 hectares of seed-rich plants and 40 song-bird feeders to provide winter food, as well as a network of good quality hedges and edges to provide nesting places and protection from predators.”

William Selborne, who leads the SLP, said: “233 years after Gilbert White’s famous baseline, this report proves that if farmers collaborate at the landscape scale to create and restore habitats, the whole can be more than the sum of the parts – delivering space for nature and burgeoning wildlife populations at the same time as producing food from the farmed landscape.”

Andrew Lee, director of countryside policy and management for the national park, said: “This report offers some very inspiring news and we are lucky to have so many farmers who are demonstrating that nature can thrive alongside food production.

“We need this to happen across the national park for our wildlife to recover to the levels seen in Gilbert White’s days and I hope the story of Selborne can be a blueprint for best practice across the national park and indeed the UK.”

The best videos delivered daily

Watch the stories that matter, right from your inbox