The Halting Environmental Loss Project (HELP) got underway in spring 2011 in the Glenwherry area of the Antrim Hills. The aim of the project was to maintain or improve the population of breeding waders (in this case curlew, lapwing and snipe), in one of their last remaining strongholds in Northern Ireland. Now, nearly four years on, the RSPB has just hosted an event to celebrate the projects success in producing a remarkable recovery in the fortunes of these birds thanks to the efforts of over 60 local farmers.
The average project farm in Glenwherry is around 100 hectares in size, consisting of large areas of unimproved rush pasture, with a few improved grazing and silage fields close to the farm yard. Farms are typically managed for beef and sheep. Targeted advice was available to all farmers living in the area whose land had the potential to support breeding waders. Around half of farmers were in an agri-environment scheme with breeding wader options when the project began.
Image 1: The view from the summit of Slemish Mountain showing lands at the heart of the project.
Right from the beginning, farmers took on board advice from their local RSPB Project Officer and have been working hard to improve habitat conditions for waders ever since. During the lifetime of the project over 680 hectares of rush has been controlled, 15 wader scrapes have been created, scrub and trees have been removed and grazing regimes fine tuned. Farmers have attended training events, machinery demonstrations and hosted guided walks.
Image 2: An example of a newly created wader scrape
Annual surveys have revealed an increasing number of breeding pairs each year of the project. In core plots there has been a 48% increase since 2011, while the number of pairs across the entire project area has increased by 28% in the last three years. Snipe have been the main benefactors, increasing from 30 pairs in 2011 to a staggering 98 pairs this year. They have moved into fields where rush has been cut, even more so if this has been backed up by cattle grazing or the creation of a wader scrape.
Closely monitored lapwing pairs have fledged an average of 1.1 chicks per pair during the lifetime of the project. This has enabled their numbers to increase from 29 pairs in 2011 to 37 pairs this year. Farmers have marked and avoided nests in crop and silage fields and have been kept up to date on the whereabouts of chicks by the Project Officer.
Image 3: Recently hatched lapwing chick
In 2013, a breeding wader survey was conducted across Northern Ireland by the RSPB, which estimated there could be as few as 256 breeding pairs of curlew left in the country, with a population decline of 82% recorded since 1986. However in Glenwherry, curlews are showing encouraging signs. Numbers have slowly increased during HELP and monitoring work has shown that hatching rates are now at the highest level ever recorded in the area (58% in 2014). A total of 39 pairs were present on project farms in 2014, making Glenwherry one of the premier sites for this species anywhere in Ireland.
Image 4: Adult curlew on lookout duty
A massive thank you to all project farmers for making this happen. However, we must not stop here, we must build upon this momentum and focus on getting populations closer to what they were in the 80’s, this may take a long time to achieve but if the last four years have shown us anything; it's that Glenwherry farmers are well worth the investment.
By Neal Warnock, RSPB Glenwherry Project Officer
All images © Neal Warnock
Winter is a tough time for wildlife, but especially so for those species which call farmland home. Many farmland bird species such as grey partridge, yellowhammer and corn bunting depend on seeds to survive. Other species such as thrushes and bullfinches depend on berries, fruit and grubs found along our hedgerows.
Hawthorn hedgerow with berries. Copyright: RSPB Images, Andy Hay
In arable areas the widespread change to autumn sowing of crops, reduction in over-winter stubbles as a result, increased use of herbicides which has removed many of the arable plants which set seed, increased efficiency of harvest leading to less spilt grain and the intensive management of hedgerows, have all combined to make our farms very challenging places for birds in the winter. There is a dearth of seeds and berries with the result that birds have to move to find food elsewhere, or perish.
An example of this was Hope Farm during the first winter (2000/01) of RSPB ownership. All our crops had been planted in the autumn, there was no over-winter stubble and no wild bird cover plots providing seed. Our farm bird count in December 2000 found a total of 203 birds of 22 species.
Since then we have relaxed our hedgerow management so the hedges are now dripping with berries for the thrushes and bullfinches, and use about 3ha of the farm to grow wild bird cover. Wild bird cover is mix of cereals and oilseeds which is left unharvested and provides lots of seeds for a variety of farmland bird species to eat.
Jack Kelly inspecting his wild bird cover in Down, N.Ireland. Copyright: RSPB Images, Andy Hay
Why is there a mix of crops in wild bird cover? Well, like you and I who probably have different favourite foods, a yellowhammer prefers cereals grains, such as wheat and triticale, or millet, whereas a linnet prefers oilseeds such as mustard or fodder rape. So we have to provide a range of crops to cater for the diversity of tastes in our birds!
The lenient hedgerow management and provision of wild bird cover is paid for though the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) via the agri-environment schemes. This is a critical mechanism to ensure farmers who do care for the wildlife on their farms and do provide these great habitats and resources are paid for doing so. In England, we are about to start a new agri-environment scheme, Countryside Stewardship. Farmers who are successful in applying for agreements and funding will be encouraged to put even more seed rich habitats around their farms, and manage their hedgerows to provide abundant berries for our winter visitors.
So has this worked at Hope Farm?
Last week a team from our Conservation Science department carried out the regular December count. It was a dry and fairly calm day, not too cold but still very wet underfoot. They covered the whole farm, recording all the birds as they went. Back at the farmhouse, over bacon and eggs, the counts were analysed and counted up.
The result: an amazing 1604 birds of 44 species! That’s nearly 8 times as many birds as in December 2000, and double the number of species.
What’s even more amazing is that we counted 236 yellowhammers alone, all using the wild bird cover crops. That’s more yellowhammers than all the birds in December 2000 added together. Really fantastic!!! Even better than that was the first tree sparrows wintering on the farm since 2000, maybe a little sign that this species is recovering from the cataclysmic declines of the 1980's and 1990's.
Tree sparrow feeding on seed. Copyright: RSPB Images, Andy Hay
You can tell, that as manager of Hope Farm, I am really proud of what we have achieved here. It is a huge pleasure to see these flocks of wintering birds, to tell you about them and to show them to our visitors.
So it would be great to hear what you have on your farm this winter. In fact, it would be even better if you could also take part in the GWCT Big Farmland Bird Count taking place from 7th to 15th February 2015, which encourages farmers to count the birds on their farms for half-an-hour and let GWCT know what you saw. Do bear in mind though, the more habitat and resources you provide, the more birds you may have. So if you want to have more than your neighbour, or us here at Hope Farm, then do apply for a Countryside Stewardship agreement when your current Environmental Stewardship agreement runs out, and put in place the best options for birds and other wildlife so you too can be loud and proud about the wildlife on your farm.
The Axholme and Idle valley farmland bird project is one of a suite of local initiatives supporting groups of farmers working for wildlife across different landscapes. Up here in the low, open flatlands where Nottinghamshire meets Lincolnshire and South Yorkshire, volunteer birders and farmers have just received the results of this season’s bird monitoring. And they show beautifully that there’s more than meets the eye in this arable landscape.
Bird records from the last decade had already highlighted that this was one of the most important parts of England for birds that rely on arable farming. So, the surveys that started last year focused on tracking these species – such as corn bunting, grey partridge and skylark.
This year 13 new sites were surveyed, and across them volunteers found a staggering 101 different bird species. For the species that the project focuses on, the number of territories recorded are:
As the sites surveyed this year were different to those surveyed last year, we can’t yet assume from these results that this shows actual change in bird populations across the whole area between years. We’ll need a few more seasons of data to work that out for sure. However, controlling for the different size areas between years (that is, comparing the number of territories per area surveyed) shows that most species seemed to do as well or better this year than last. The main exception was yellow wagtail. It was also sad to note that, like last year, no turtle doves were recorded at all.
If we compare the number of birds per area with those measured by the British Trust for Ornithology (latest figures available), then this project area still shows many times more of each of these species than an average part of the English countryside.
The number of bird species recorded on each site varied from a very healthy 35 to an astonishing 65. Skylark was recorded on every site, and linnet and yellowhammer were close behind. Among the more unusual bird records this year were red kite, marsh harrier, peregrine and nightingale – all uncommon locally - and must’ve been real treats for their finders.
Project officer, Jim Lennon, will be talking with each of the farms taking part over the next few weeks about their results. For those that would like to give their special wildlife a little extra help, the next few months could be very important. Agri-environment schemes are the biggest and main source of Government funding for biodiversity, but changes taking place over the last year or so have meant that it’s been quite hard to access this support lately. Natural England’s new agri-environment scheme, Countryside Stewardship, is due to launch in 2015, with new agreements and payments starting in 2016. There’s a lot of detail yet to become clear, but it’s very likely that support will be preferentially given to those that are able and willing to help nationally scarce farmland wildlife.
Whatever agri-environment opportunities develop for local farmers, the Axholme and Idle valley farmland bird project is planning for next year’s bird monitoring. Monitoring officer, Anna Broszkiewicz, particularly welcomes any new farms that would be open to having a survey, as well as local birdwatchers who can offer a few early mornings over the spring and would like to visit places not normally accessible to the public. Get in touch with her to find out more about what’s involved – but don’t wait too long. The deadline for 2015 participants is 5 January. Call her on 07736 722184 or email her at email@example.com
Thanks must go to each of the volunteer bird surveyors for all their hours of skilled fieldwork this spring, and to each of the farmers taking part. Together we’re starting to better understand how this area is special for farmland birds, and support local wildlife-friendly farmers.