Starlings - the menace in the skies of rural Cheshire

Farmers in Cheshire are turning to birds of prey to protect their cattle feed from the threat posed by starlings, as Carl Nagaitis reports

An ominous black and living cloud rises suddenly over the Cheshire Plain before sweeping across the gentle landscape and finally wheeling earth-wards where its occupants settle hungrily on any available perch.

Dairy men and farm workers are immediately put on alert as teams of falconers, each carrying hooded birds of prey, take their positions around the cow sheds – their every move followed by the piercing eyes of this huge flock of starlings.

This is no sci-fi movie, this is a nightmare scene that Cheshire’s farming community is increasingly becoming accustomed to – the curse of the starlings.

Every Autumn hundreds of thousands of these protected birds invade the county, attracted by the tons of feed in the cow sheds of Cheshire’s dairy farms. This nutritious and easily gathered food supply will keep them here until they leave in late March.

‘The problem is that the birds can have a devastating impact on the running of the county’s dairy farms,’ explained Steve Birchall, owner of Cheshire Falconry, the company which has created falcon patrols to protect the county’s dairy farms from starling raids.

‘Modern dairy farms are run very efficiently,’ he added. ‘The diet fed to dairy herds is carefully controlled to ensure the milk produced by the cows is of the exact standard demanded by the retail sector – even down to its fat content.

Most Read

‘So when thousands of starlings descend on a dairy farm and start helping themselves to the cow feed, the end result can be devastating. And if a cow’s diet is affected you can bet the quality of its milk will be affected. And when that happens the big boys of retail sector will refuse to buy and look elsewhere for milk supplies.’

When farmers began to feel the costly effects of the starling invasion they took steps to defend their land – some even bringing back scarecrows to try to ward off the birds.

‘But whatever they did simply didn’t work,’ added Steve, who has based the Cheshire Falconry HQ at Blakemere Craft Centre near Northwich. ‘We began getting calls from farmers who wanted to try to use our falcons to frighten off the starlings – and it seems to work.

‘We post our falconers at key points around a farm and when the birds of prey are on patrol the starlings get out of the way double quick. When you arrive at a dairy farm at this time of year you simply can’t miss the starlings. They perch in the trees, on telephone wires and on fences, anywhere in easy striking distance from the cash sheds. But when one of our falcons swoops down out of the sky they soon disperse.’

Cheshire dairy farmer Paul Robinson of Woodhey Hall Farm at Faddiley near Nantwich said: ‘The starling problem is getting worse I’m afraid because farms are getting bigger with more animals and more feed to attract the birds. We also grow maize these days, which starlings love.‘We have to feed our cows a very similar diet all the year round and it’s a diet that the starlings value too.’

And Mike Heler, managing director of the Laurels Dairy Farm at Hatherton near Nantwich added: ‘The starling problem is a nightmare and it is getting worse. For me the main problem is disease. These birds carry all sorts of diseases and they have made some of my cows ill. But we’re not allowed to harm them as they are a protected species so we have to do what we can to keep them away from our cattle.

‘Using falcons is a useful way of keeping them at bay but it is not a permanent solution.’