The RSPB has thanked farmers in the Glenwherry area for their dedication and co-operation to protect threatened bird species on their land.
The Antrim Hills are a hotspot for breeding waders such as lapwing, snipe and curlew. This species group has declined by a massive 83 per cent in Northern Ireland since 1987 but around Glenwherry these birds have been on the increase since 2011, with an impressive 164 pairs recorded last year.
Image: Curlew by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
This has been made possible by the work of local wildlife-friendly farmers who, through the RSPB’s Halting Environmental Loss Project (HELP), have been taking advice from Neal Warnock, their local RSPB Project Officer. Nearly £1.5 million has been given to HELP in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and Scotland from the European Regional Development Fund through the INTERREG IVA Programme, which is delivered locally by the Special EU Programmes Body.
Breeding waders require wet grassland habitat with variable grass heights and some rush cover for nesting, shelter and raising their young. Rush management and good grazing practices ensures land is more productive and also benefits wildlife.
Image: Snipe by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
However it is not advisable to carry out field operations in fields likely to have ground nesting birds during the breeding season. As well as breeding waders, several other birds such as meadow pipit and skylark also nest on the ground. In fact farmers who have entered agri-environment schemes are asked not to carry out field operations such as rolling or fertilising between 15 April and 30 June in suitable breeding wader fields. This period extends to 15 July for farmers wishing to cut rush.
Neal commented: “I have been really impressed by the way farmers in the area have embraced HELP and many clearly have a real passion for seeing these birds thrive on their land. Thanks to the success of the project so far, birds have begun nesting in places they haven’t been seen for many years. I have been delighted to work alongside several farmers who have kindly agreed to delay field operations, such as silage cutting, due to having nesting lapwing present – that kind of consideration is so important to ensure that nature can make its home in Glenwherry.”
Glenwherry farmers can contact Neal for advice by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 07703716840.
The Hope Farm Winter Bird Index, calculated from whole-farm counts made during December, January and February, for 2013/14 is 6.84. This is a slight decline from 2012/13 (7.35). However, it is the 3rd highest winter index figure for Hope Farm since counts began in winter 2000/01 (baseline = 1) and is remarkable due to the lack of wood pigeons recorded and the mild temperatures.
At Hope Farm, as well as monitoring bird populations we also monitor butterfly numbers and contribute data to Butterfly Conservation's UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme. Butterflies are systematically monitored weekly from April until the end of September. This provides a yearly total for each species and enables us to draw yearly comparisons on the farm and with national trends, although slight methodological differences prevent a direct comparison with the population index for farmland butterflies in England.
The English farmland index is calculated using a suite of 21 species and we use the same species to calculate the Hope Farm Butterfly Index (see graph). Overall, butterfly numbers have increased since the baseline year in 2001, although with some annual fluctuation related to poor weather. This compares favourably with the national trend for England, which has seen a slight decline over the same period of time.
Hope Farm entered Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) in harvest year 2007 and one of the options we have taken up are Nectar flower mixtures, which increased the area of flower-habitats on the farm. The numbers of butterflies recorded as part of our monitoring has increased since 2007 and further analysis of the small scale habitat changes on butterfly numbers is ongoing.
Flower-rich field margin at Hope Farm (Image by Richard Winspear)
As the breeding season gets into full swing, farmers and birdwatchers are being urged to keep a lookout for Montagu’s harriers – the rarest breeding bird of prey in the UK, which nests almost entirely on arable farmland.
Montagu's harriers make the journey all the way from Senegal, running the gauntlet of bad weather, desert and the barrage of illegal hunters. Even more remarkable, the journey they make brings them back to the same field as the previous year.
Image: Montagu's harrier artwork female in flight. Mike Langman (rspb-images.com)
Montagu's harriers are both beautiful and very rare in the UK. With a population of less than 7 pairs it is our most precious breeding raptor. If it were not for two special groups of people we would lose this bird - the farmers who manage the land they breed on and the devoted ornithologists who closely nurture any breeding attempts.
Although rare, Montagu's harriers can be colonial with several pairs choosing to breed close together. Apart from when they are displaying in May they can be remarkably secretive, the female incubating eggs hidden deep in a grass or arable crop for a month, the male wandering large distances from the nest.
Male and female Montagu’s harriers differ in appearance. The males are plain grey, with black wing tips and a white underside. The females are mottled brown with a white rump. They are approximately the size of a buzzard, but have a more slender and graceful appearance.
The problem is that our fragile whisper of a population has decreased in the last two seasons. Our conservation colleagues in Spain tell us this could be cyclic - it seems nothing with this species is ever static.
In reality 'our' population doesn't actually exist, we simply host birds of the wider European population. But one thing we suspect is that despite our efforts, we are missing UK breeding birds.
So we need your help!
Mark Thomas, who leads the RSPB’s Montagu’s harrier conservation work, said: “It is vitally important we identify as many nest sites as possible. We can then offer free advice to the landowner on how best to protect these sites and give these birds a home to rear their young.
“Now is a great time to witness the adults’ airborne courtship before they establish their nests and become more difficult to see.
“Last year, reports to the hotline helped us confirm their presence at some of the traditional nest sites. Hopefully, this year we will discover some new nest sites and help these birds firmly establish themselves as a breeding species in the UK.”
Image: Montagu's harrier artwork male in flight. Mike Langman (rspb-images.com)
With the help of farmers and birdwatchers we are hopeful we can locate new birds away from the UK core in Wessex and that these birds can be helped to successfully rear juveniles.
Any possible sightings of Montagu’s harrier can be reported to the hotline on 01767 693398 or emailed to email@example.com. Details should include the date and six digit grid reference if possible and a contact telephone number. All reports to the hotline will be treated in the strictest of confidence.