Richard specialises in the ecology of farmland and woodland, especially the birds and mammals of arable, hedgerow and forest habitats, and in understanding the relationships between species and habitats.
He has been fascinated by wild birds and natural history from an early age. He grew up grew up in East Yorkshire, close to the Humber Estuary, Yorkshire coast, marshes and farmland and when he was fourteen years old, he began doing his own surveys of local birds. He hasn’t really stopped since then.
He has a BSc (First Class) from the University of Hull in Physical Geography, including biogeography and conservation, as well as an MSc in Geographical Information Systems from the University of Edinburgh. He also has a PhD in habitat modelling and species ecology (of the marsh tit) from Bournemouth University.
He began his career at the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology (ITE), as an ecologist and GIS Specialist and remained with the organisation when it became CEH (Centre for Ecology & Hydrology). He has research interests in the ecology of the Bialoweiza Primeval Forest in Poland (home to wolves and bison), where he is involved in studies of Wood Warblers, and he is Vice Chair of the BTO Ringing Committee, which oversees the British & Irish scheme for catching and ringing birds for research and 'citizen science'.
‘A lot of my life follows the seasons,’ says Richard. At FarmED, assisted by Dr Marta Maziarz, he conducts surveys of breeding birds in Spring and surveys on sown birdfood plots in winter.
‘It’s been rewarding to follow the changes and creation of the new habitats from the start, and see how they develop and how the birds have responded over time. It's been very pleasing to make a few predictions about what might appear after habitat changes, and then seeing it come to fruition. Even with simple measures, such as the arrival of breeding Barn Owls after putting up a box for them. Also the appearance of Reed Buntings, Willow Warblers and Grey Partridges after the habitat was diversified.’
As well as the pleasure of seeing the diversity of species increase on the farm, including some birds that are declining elsewhere, Richard finds it rewarding to monitor how the birds link the farm to the wider landscape, and also the wider world.
‘We've recorded Merlins, Stonechats and Meadow Pipits from the uplands of northern Britain, while the Swallows that nest here come from Southern Africa each year, the Willow Warblers have spent the last few months in Africa's rainforest, the Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs have wintered around the Mediterranean, and the Lesser Whitethroats have come from East Africa and Arabia. The Redwings that arrive on the farm in winter to eat the hedgerow berries have come from Iceland, Norway and Finland. The wintering Fieldfares and Woodcocks come from as far as Russia, as might some of the Blackbirds and Robins. We've even had a Greenland Wheatear, which stopped to rest and feed on the farm during its spring migration from southern Africa to Greenland or Canada. So many of the birds that use the farm have crossed oceans and continents to be here.
He says that working at FarmED has shown him that energy, vision, enthusiasm and the will to make a difference can achieve a great deal.
‘Farmland birds have been under severe pressure for decades. Intensification, loss of habitats and a changing climate have had a massive effect. During my lifetime we have lost tens of millions of birds from the farmed landscape, and some common birds from my childhood are now almost gone. Many people derive great pleasure from experiencing wildlife, and farmland birds are part of our culture. We need to find ways of enabling them to survive, for the benefit of society as a whole. What would the countryside be without Cuckoos or Skylarks? But we're already losing them, and fast.’
He has seen how small changes and a bit of creativity can make a difference. ‘A pond, an unmown/ungrazed area of tussocky grass, some scrub - they all increase the diversity of habitats, and give birds a chance to survive.’
Diversity is the key. ‘Don't be afraid to be a bit messy around the edges and the hedges! Despite being just 7 fields, 82 species of bird have been recorded, and 45 breed on the farm or use it for foraging during the breeding season (while nesting elsewhere). It’s wonderful.’