Having just spent a glorious week in the Highlands, it seems very timely to turn the blog spotlight on some of the brilliant project work going on across Scotland. Because there's so much going on, I'll be posting a series of updates over the next few days. Today, we'll kick off with what's going on in the North of Scotland where we're not only working with farmers and crofters to do lots of good stuff for waders, but bumblebees, corncrakes and corn buntings too. Three projects are up and running to support this work in specific areas:
Strathspey Wetlands and Waders Initiative
The Strathspey Wetlands and Waders Initiative (SWWI) was established in 2009 with a remit to prepare agri-environment plans for the benefit of breeding waders across Strathspey.
The area has one of the largest breeding wader populations on mainland UK with over 3,600 pairs recorded in the baseline survey in 2000. This survey covered over 9,000 ha of farmland.
Since then, however, declines have been severe. Lapwing numbers have fallen by 60% and redshank by 55%. Overall declines across the five wader species of farmland waders; lapwing, redshank, snipe, curlew and oystercatcher, stand at 42%.
Image: Young lapwing by Chris Tomson
In the early years, the SWWI submitted over 50 agri-environment plans. These were done collaboratively by initiative partners; RSPB Scotland, Scotland’s Rural College, SRUC (formerly SAC), the Cairngorm National Park Authority, CKD Galbraith, Agroecosystems and independent agents. Initiative meetings are also attended by the NFUS and the Speyside Catchment Initiative, and are chaired by Scottish Natural Heritage.
Recently, the SWWI has embarked on ‘hands on’ delivery. In the last couple of years, it has done a number of extensive farm habitat surveys, followed by carrying out rush control, scrub removal, scrape creation and ditch profiling on many of the survey sites. Many of these actions are showcased at farm demonstration events. Advice on management is backed up by a series of area specific leaflets. In addition, the SWWI owns a rush topper, which is administered from the RSPB Insh Marshes reserve and is loaned free to farmers.
Image: Scrape creation by Bridget England
It is hoped that more specific actions for waders may be incorporated into the forthcoming agri-environment scheme in Scotland e.g. scrape creation and the SWWI engages in policy and advocacy work around these types of issues as well as providing training to agri agents and case officers
The initiative is increasingly involved with research projects, currently with a focus on predator control and soil improvement for waders through liming.
Caithness Wetlands and Wildlife Initiative
The Caithness Wetlands and Wildlife Initiative (CWWI) was set up on the model of the Strathspey project. Caithness also has an important population of breeding waders across extensive farmland but the CWWI remit takes in the great yellow bumblebee and overwintering twite in addition to waders.
Image: Great yellow bumblebee by Mike Edwards (rspb-images.com)
To date, the fortunes of the breeding wader population in Caithness is unknown as the first extensive baseline survey was done in 2009. This recorded 464 pairs across 3,100 hectares of wetland fringe. However, in light of declines across the rest of Scotland, it is assumed that this will be a diminished population. A repeat survey is being carried out this year, 2014.
Overwintering Twite has suffered a long term decline in Caithness, between 66% and 80% in the last ten years, and the great yellow bumblebee is rare species now only found in some parts of Scotland, primarily on the Hebrides and on the northern coast of Caithness and Sutherland.
The CWWI is a smaller partnership than the SWWI but has a particularly strong partners from Scotland’s Rural College, which is the organisation that does most of the agri-environment work in Scotland, and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust. The NFUS also lends its support.
Like the SWWI, primary actions for waders include preparing agri-environment plans collaboratively; carrying out farm habitat surveys, rush management, scrape creation and ditch profiling; holding on-farm training events, producing advisory leaflets, and lending out a rush topper to farmers. The topper has been particularly successful, both as a land management tool and as a means of engaging farmers in discussion on wader management.
Image: Softrak at work by Bridget England
Like the SWWI, the CWWI engages in policy and advocacy work.
Our work on The Uists covers the wildlife rich landscape of crofted machair systems. Crofts in the area are small scale, and managed at low intensity with some traditional practices still surviving such as the spreading of seaweed, shallow ploughing and the building of corn stacks. Wild flowers benefit from the low input system and the practice of maintaining two year fallows.
Advisory work has been key to species recovery in this area for the last two decades. Key species include corncrake, corn bunting, breeding waders and the great yellow bumblebee. Actions carried out include preparation and submission of agri-environment plans by RSPB staff (over 50 to date) as well as input to plans submitted by other agents. In addition, the RSPB has management agreements with crofters for the creation and maintenance of corncrake cover, and provision of winter food for corn buntings.
Image: Corncrake habitat by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
Species are monitored annually. Currently, the species of greatest concern is the corn bunting. Numbers of territorial males have dropped from over 250 in the mid 90’s to as low as 47 in 2013. Some recovery was seen in the population when conservation efforts started in after 2005 but that has not been maintained. Efforts to provide winter food have been stepped up over the last year.
There is no formal partnership in the Uists but staff regularly collaborate with Scotland’s Rural College, the Scottish Crofting Federation and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust. That collaboration has included a placement of RSPB staff in the SRUC offices.
Over the last few years, the Machair LIFE project has also been working on the islands. Projects that will be continued as part of the focus area once Machair LIFE comes to a close include a collaboration with the University of the Highlands and Islands to set up a crofting course, the provision of a seaweed spreader through a local contractor, use of a suite of educational and advisory materials. In addition, short term funding has been provided to expand the advisory service in Lewis and Harris.
The popular TV series Downton Abbey and the stone-curlew, one of the UK’s rarest and most unusual birds, might not seem to have anything in common at first glance.
However, the RSPB Wessex Stone-curlew Project Team has been working with the landowner at Highclere Castle in Hampshire where the series is filmed, as part of a wildlife project going back 30 years to revive the fortunes of the stone-curlew, an endangered wader.
Highclere Castle farms manager, James Phillips, has just received a Royal Agricultural Society award in the House of Lords for the partnership, which helps stone-curlews to nest safely on the estate’s farmland.
Stone curlew by Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)
Around 150 pairs of stone-curlews, a third of the UK population, are concentrated in Wiltshire, Hampshire and Berkshire. The stone-curlew has distinctive large yellow staring eyes with a black pupil, long yellow legs and a yellow bill with a black tip. It nests on the ground and has declined largely as a result of changes in farming practice introduced by the Common Agricultural Policy going back 50 years.
“We have been working with landowners to provide safe nesting habitat for stone-curlew within the farmed landscape, and to protect nests and chicks that are vulnerable to farming operations,” said Nick Tomalin, Wessex Farmland Project Manager of the RSPB.
“Traditionally, stone-curlews have nested on very short grass, and these are still important foraging areas. These grassland habitats have declined as pressure to produce more food has led to increased cultivation,” Nick said.
“Stone-curlews prefer to nest on bare, chalky ground, sometimes in spring crops. The eggs and chicks are well camouflaged, which means they may be destroyed by farm machinery.
“The team survey areas of potentially suitable habitat and locate nests, then discuss habitat management with a network of around 300 farmers in order to give the birds the best chance of breeding successfully without disturbance.”
“When a stone-curlew was found on Highclere estate in 2002, the staff managed to include nesting plots as part of their habitat management by 2004. These were used for the first time in 2007, and by 2012 there were two pairs on the estate,” Nick added.
Nesting plots are cultivated areas within fields which farmers leave unplanted in order to provide safe nesting habitats for stone-curlews.
“Last year we lost around 20 per cent of the Wessex stone-curlew population due to the cold spring. But the work done by people like James and his team at Highclere gives the species the best possible chance of recovering again,” Nick said.
If someone asked you where to go to see England’s best wetlands for wildlife, where would you suggest? The Fens? Somerset Levels?
Chances are that the valleys around the upper reaches of the Thames and its tributaries wouldn’t be the first area you’d think of. However, for waders, this is one of the best areas in southern England. In fact, there are more curlew breeding on farmland in the Upper Thames than anywhere else in southern England.And the overwhelming majority of this area is farmed. By actual, real farmers.
True, the magnificent Otmoor nature reserve does lie within the area, and is managed by the RSPB specifically for waders and other wetland specialists. But nature reserves alone will never be enough to save wildlife. For that, you need large areas of land. And in the Upper Thames, there’s over 27,000 hectares of floodplain that’s home to nature.
Many of the farmers along the Upper Thames have been quietly going out of their way for waders for years now. Over fifty of them have been keeping their pastures extensively managed, their meadows cut late to protect nesting birds, making and re-making scrapes and wet footdrains, and welcoming the volunteer surveyors that monitor the birds each spring.
Last November, my colleagues and I thought it was high time these farmers got a chance to see the overall results from their combined efforts.
Over twenty of the local farmers turned up on a cold, crisp morning to the village of Northmoor in Oxfordshire. The first fieldfares of winter were calling noisily as we climbed up onto a trailer for a tour of a nearby wet grassland site. Our host, Rob Florey, took us through the arable part of his farm, past excellent examples of hedges, buffer strips and even some wild bird seed mix.
We dismounted the trailer, and walked down towards the River Thames, where some very good-looking Ruby Red Devons were grazing. By their reaction, we were the most interesting thing they’d seen in ages. A shallow footdrain full of water ran the length of their field – a familiar sign that the RSPB’s rotary ditcher had worked here in recent years. This simple feature would provide plenty of crucial wet edge for lapwings and their chicks throughout the coming spring.
After enjoying the fresh air, we all headed back to the village hall for some extremely hearty soup and sweet, moist cake. Over the afternoon, and over coffee, we discussed how waders were faring across the Upper Thames.
Against backgrounds of national declines and a disastrous wet season in 2012, it was encouraging to see lapwing numbers seem to be roughly stable at around 100 pairs. Curlew had dipped slightly from around 50 pairs over 2005-8 to about 40 pairs, but hadn’t changed much since then. The more localised waders, redshank and snipe, were both increasing, reaching 54 and 14 pairs respectively in 2013.
It was a chance to ask these wildlife-friendly farmers what they enjoyed most about living and working in the area. What challenges did they most struggle with? What role could the RSPB take in future to support their conservation? It was a constructive and in-depth series of discussions, and my colleagues and I are looking to modify some of the regular project activities as a result.
Nearly five months on, spring is happening all around us. Farmers are busy nursing their tender crops, lambing, and the local RSPB team of staff and volunteers are gearing up for another season of wader surveying. With my 'volunteer’s hat on’, I’ll be covering a stretch of the Cherwell valley. I’m not especially looking forward to the very early starts in the cold, half-lit mornings. But the prospect of surveying for farmers in the floodplain always gets me a little excited as well. Because whether it’s s mass of hot-pink ragged robin flowers in some forgotten corner, or the silhouette of a curlew in a misty meadow, I never quite know what I might find.