The RSPB's Natasha Yorke-Edgell takes us on a journey around Scotland, Wales and the north of England to discover how the fortunes of this charming little bird might be changing as a result of combined efforts from the farming and conservation community.
There’s nothing more charming than seeing a chattering flock of twite lined up on a wire or dry stone wall up in the British uplands, but sadly it has become a rare sighting. In the last couple of decades these small brown finches have suffered severe declines across the UK. The south Pennines populations, for example, declined by a staggering 81% between 1990 and 2005. That’s just 15 years in which the species plummeted onto the endangered species red-list - but we are determined to bring them back from the brink.
As nature lovers we often forget how much progress we’re making when all of nature seems under threat, so we thought we’d include a good news story from across the UK to remind us that by working together we can achieve the impossible.
Twite on The Oa, Islay. Image: RSPB
Twite recovery project brought to life for species champion, Sian Gwenllian AM
In Wales, twite are now only found in the Nant Ffrancon and Ogwen valleys of northern Snowdonia, where just 17 pairs remain. However, they were formerly found in upland areas of Denbighshire and Meirionydd as recently as the mid-1990s. It is suspected that their declines across the UK stem from a lack of food – unlike most finches that might supplement their diet with insects, twite only eat seeds, and quite a select few species at that. Because of intensified farming practices we’ve lost a lot of the traditional hay meadows and arable crops that would have provided them with the seed they need, so RSPB Cymru Conservation Officer, Rhian Pierce, has been working with farmers in these valleys to make sure twite have the seed they need to survive.
Although most of their land is not suitable for creating hay meadows, Rhian and over 10 different farms have organized alternative approaches like rotating grazing systems – this allows plants to flower and seed steadily throughout spring and summer, providing plenty of twites’ favourite food and keeping the farm’s livestock well fed on nutritious plants. “The community of farmers within the valley are making a real difference to this little brown job” says Rhian, “By changing some of their farming practices, they’re playing a vital role in securing a better future for this small population of twite.”
This week, RSPB Cymru’s species champion for twite, Sian Gwenllian AM, visited one of these farms to understand more about her species and the collaborative work that is helping to revive them. On Bodesi farm she met with Ken Jones, a Welsh sheep farmer that has brought back twite using these grazing methods.
“I’ve been really pleased to come to two farms today in Nant Ffrancon in the Arfon constituency, to learn about twite” said Sain, “a little bird from the finch family, whose numbers are stabilising now thanks to the partnership work that’s happening.”
Sian Gwenllian site visit. Image: Rhys Evans
Rejuvenating hay meadows in the South Pennines
Similarly to Wales, there have been dramatic declines in the English twite population. It is estimated that there are now 160 pairs of twite remaining in England, a 72% decline since 1999. The vast majority of these are in the South Pennines, where they declined by around 81% between 1990 – 2004-05.
To combat these declines, the RSPB and Natural England came together to set up the English Twite Recovery Project in 2008. As in Wales, the focus of the project has been on increasing food availability for twite during the breeding season. So far, 68 landowners have signed 10 year agri-environment agreements (Government funded schemes) with options to benefit twite, meaning that now approximately 585 ha of land is managed to provide natural food sources for them throughout the summer.
Common sorrel and dandelion for twite. Image: Tim Melling
Some of the changes have included cutting hay meadows later in the year so seed is available for longer, reducing the number of livestock in each area to encourage plant regeneration, and adding more twite food plants through hay meadow restoration. Restoring hay meadows not only benefits twite, but also other birds such as curlew and skylark as well as mammals and invertebrates like pollinators. What’s more, hay meadows provide rich nutritious food for the livestock, which means farmers don’t have to spend so much money on feed or have such a big carbon footprint.
Twite nesting habitat in the Pennines. Image: Tim Melling
This year, the project team are working with even more farmers and increasing the amount of seeds available later in the twite breeding season, so around autumn time. Twite Project Officer, Katrina Aspin, adds: “We hope that these measures will help the twite population in the South Pennines increase in abundance and range in the near future.”
Feeding twite in the Inner Hebrides
Twite breed in the uplands of the far west of Scotland over the summer months and then swoop down to the west coast of Scotland or east coast of England for the winter months. On RSPB Oa reserve in the Inner Hebrides, colleagues have been leaving stubble over winter to provide for a range of finches for many years, but over the last few years they have increased the amount of seed favoured by twite to encourage more of them to return. This has mostly included planting fodder raddish, which produce an abundance of small oily seeds in the autumn.
Until recently the flock of twite that fed with the other finches on the area’s winter stubble has only ever reached 500, but since introducing more of their favourite food the flock has grown significantly. Last autumn was particularly outstanding, with the flock growing to over 1000! After discussing the achievement with twite experts around the UK the team discovered that this was by far the largest twite gathering in the country. In the 1980's this size of flock was much more common, but declines, particularly in England and Wales, have turned this gathering into something special. Now that it’s clear if you provide the food twite need they will return and thrive in droves, the team will continue to improve the mix and amount of twite seed available so that this habitat can become one of their long term UK strongholds.
Twite gathering on fencing and on the ground, The Oa, Islay. Image: RSPB
You can read more about twite in Wales here and in Scotland here.
RSPB Press Release
For the first time in 20 years, curlew chicks have fledged at a County Antrim farm.
Last year a pair of curlews attempted to breed at Greenmount Hill Farm in Glenwherry for the first time since 2005 - only to fail to hatch young.
But this summer RSPB NI’s Conservation Advisor Neal Warnock was delighted to see that two pairs arrived back at the farm and he can confirm that one of the pairs has successfully fledged three young.
It is believed that these are the first curlews to fledge from the site since the 1990s. The happy news is a real boost considering that over the past two decades curlew numbers across the UK have almost halved. In Northern Ireland we have lost more than 80% of the curlew population since 1987.
Since 2009, RSPB NI, the Irish Grouse Conservation Trust (IGCT), the College of Agriculture, Food & Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) and other partners have been working as part of the Glenwherry Hill Regeneration Project (GHRP) on an integrated management approach in the area in a bid to ‘give nature a home in Glenwherry’.“When news broke that one of the pairs had hatched three young, their progress became the talk of the community,” said RSPB NI’s Neal Warnock. “It was a very long six-week wait watching them grow until they finally stretched their wings and departed. Curlews only rarely fledge three young, so this was terrific news for all involved in the project and should help see them become established on the farm.”
Graeme Campbell, CAFRE’s GHRP Project Manager, added, “We are delighted with this year’s curlew success and that the work to attract breeding waders over the last six years has also resulted in increasing numbers of snipe breeding on the farm.”
Farmers and landowners have a crucial part to play in helping to halt and reverse the decline of curlews. The Glenwherry Hill Regeneration Project has undertaken a string of measures to make the area attractive to curlews and to encourage them to return. This has involved habitat management measures including rush cutting and tree removal, as well as predator control carried out by the IGCT.
Joanne Sherwood, Director for RSPB NI, added: “This is such fantastic and heartwarming news. It highlights that this partnership work makes a real difference to the fortunes of threatened species. We see this as a milestone on the way to what we hope will be the recovery of curlews and other breeding waders in Glenwherry.”
Sites across the UK are amongst the most important in the world for breeding European curlews, hosting around a quarter of the global breeding population. Yet their numbers have declined due to factors including a loss of suitable habitat and increased predation.
The Antrim Hills and County Fermanagh are the last remaining hotspots for curlews in Northern Ireland.
In the wider Glenwherry area, there are approximately 45 breeding pairs recorded annually. The area is also home to lapwings and snipe.
Back in May, we shared the news that two rare Montagu’s harriers had arrived in Norfolk from West Africa. These birds are one of just five pairs of Montagu’s harriers which return to the UK to breed each spring, and as they nest in arable fields farmers have a key role in protecting these birds while they are here. It's a great demonstration of what can be achieved when conservation and farming comes together.
With the breeding season now over, how did the montys fare this year? Find out more from the RSPB's Mark Thomas here