Denbies Hillside, Surrey

There's no section on farmland in this website, principally because until the new trend towards environmentally responsible agriculture based on Stewardship bears universal fruit there is scarcely sufficient variety of accessible and habitat-specific wildlife to justify spending hour after hour attempting to find then photograph flora and fauna.

Some farmers, such as Chris Knights in East Anglia, have proved that you can be an efficient and bulk producer of food while still being wildlife friendly, but until he becomes one of the rule rather than the exception almost any other habitat,Linnet (Carduelis cannabina) including suburban gardens, will do better than much farmland for nature watching.

The consensus is that the wide-ranging actions involving the removal of semi-natural open land which started with the so-called agricultural revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries have been one of the biggest causes of the progressive impoverishment of our native flora and fauna. Combined with population increase, of course.

The devastating effects in this area of intensive agriculture over the last 60 years, mostly in the absurd cause of overproduction assisted by the disgracefully ill-focussed subsidy system of the Common Agricultural Policy, are well documented. Prodigious use of pesticides and fertilisers, the virtual disappearance of sowing of arable crops in the spring, and the methodical removal of thousands of hedges, have had a cumulative and deep impact.

There are no figures for the loss of invertebrates but they must have been exceptional, with inevitable consequences for species feeding on them. The combined results of this era of short-sightedness included a 43 per cent decline in breeding farmland birds from 1970 to 2003, with Corn Bunting (Miliaria calandra), Grey Partridge (Perdix perdix), Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus), Linnet (Carduelis cannabina) pictured here, Skylark (Alauda arvensis) and YellowhammerThe Chalkhill Blue (Polyommatus coridon) is a Species of Conservation Concern (Emeriza citrinella) suffering terrible collapses. This compares with an 11 per cent decline in woodland birds, and a 37 per cent increase on the coast.

Downland, which as unimproved chalk grassland offers one of Britain's richest habitats, has been one of the worst victims to the extent that now only 43,500 hectares, or 3.3 per cent of the chalk outcrop, remain. In Hampshire, which should be one of the finest chalk grassland counties in the country, only just over two per cent of the outcrop is left and it is distinctly fragmented.

Generally, chalk grassland now tends to be confined to steep slopes difficult to work with machinery, or to land owned by the Ministry of Defence, local authorities, and conservation charities such as the National Trust, Wildlife Trusts and Butterfly Conservation. (The Army is invariably good news for flora and fauna since they take their responsibilities as custodians seriously.)

The free-draining soil and heat from the sun on south-facing slopes makes downland a harsh environment for flora, but the characteristic YewTypical Yew (Taxus baccata) woodland on the North Downs (Taxus baccata) woodlands, as at Kingley Vale National Nature Reserve in Sussex, are magnificent, containing as they do some of the oldest living entities in Britain. Displays of wild flowers through the spring and summer on downland are a match for any in the country, while there is no better habitat for orchids - as a group, one of the natural world's jewels. Rare butterflies and moths along with declining birds find a niche, and there are myriad Orthoptera (grasshoppers and crickets), some of them species which are expanding across the UK.

A well-managed chalk grassland in June is one of the finest sights for a nature lover but bringing back those which have been destroyed is one of the toughest conservation tasks we face, even tougher than bringing back wetlands or heathland, for instance. Easier, though, than bringing back destroyed ancient woodland, since that will take roughly 400 years.

Any inquiries - please e-mail me at Nature Conservation Imaging.

Images © Jeremy Early. All rights reserved.

In 2013 I published My Side of the Fence - the Natural History of a Surrey Garden. Details may be found, and orders placed, via this hyperlink My Side of the Fence. In November 2015 Surrey Wildlife Trust published the atlas Soldierflies, their allies and Conopidae of Surrey, jointly written by David Baldock and me. Details are on this web page: Atlas.