As the hottest April on record dried the countryside – one outcome was sadly inevitable, fire. It is inevitable that many of the fires now being reported across the UK will be down to carelessness or malicious acts of arson. They add yet another threat to fragmented and all too small sites and they come in the middle of spring when the breeding attempts of wildlife will fail in the flames.
Just one example is Swinley Forest – it’s part of the Thames Basin Heaths Special Protection Area (SPA) because of its importance for ground-nesting nightjars, woodlarks and Dartford warblers. The SPA extends across Hampshire, Surrey and Berkshire and is already under pressure from development and recreational disturbance. Dartford warblers have been hit hard by the run of recent cold winters – the fires add to the pressure they are under.
Woodlark - a ground-nesting bird at risk from heathland fires.
We are re-doubling calls for great care in the countryside at the moment – and it’s not just the risk of fire. In areas like the Thames Basin Heaths where recreational pressure is intense that countryside users can help by simple acts like keeping dogs on leads.
In recent media work, Samantha Dawes, Conservation Manager at the RSPB South East, said, ‘The fires could not have struck at a worse time. It is the middle of the breeding season, when Woodlarks will already have chicks and Nightjars will have been establishing territories, and may have started laying eggs.
‘Although adult birds should be able to escape, the fires will destroy any eggs and chicks in its path.
‘This is a devastating reminder of the vulnerability of this ancient landscape and the unique wildlife that depends on it for survival.’
Uncontrolled heathland fires are one of the growing problems associated with increasing numbers of people living close to heathland sites. Hotter, drier summers, linked to climate change, are also increasing the risk and scale of uncontrolled heathland fires.
The Thames Basin Heaths SPA, a network of sites across Hampshire, Surrey and Berkshire, is also home to a range of other specialist heathland wildlife including smooth snakes, sand lizards and many butterflies and dragonflies.
The RSPB has been working alongside local authorities and landowners to help protect the SPA from increasing urban pressures, which also include disturbance to ground-nesting birds from people and dogs, predation by cats, fly-tipping and vandalism.
To encourage more sensitive use of the heaths and limit damage, the RSPB is advising measures such as creating alternative open spaces for people to use, increasing rangers on the heaths, and improving public awareness of the historical and ecological importance of heathlands.
Ms Dawes added, ‘Now it will be more important than ever that Nightjars and Woodlarks are allowed to breed undisturbed in the areas of habitat not destroyed by the fire. People can help considerably by keeping dogs on leads in those areas.’
Heathland once covered vast areas of southern England, however since the 1800s forestry, agricultural intensification and urban development have contributed to the loss of 75% of this precious habitat.
Of course the problem is not confined to the South East of England – in Scotland the fires at Torridon are under control but others still rage. Fire crews are tackling moorland blazes at Mytholmroyd in West Yorkshire and at Belmont in Lancashire – both places I know from my days in the north and both places where fire will overwhelm the breeding attempts of ground-nesting birds. I hope the Yorkshire fire is not affecting nests of the twite, a tiny upland finch that nests on the moorland and is in serious decline.
Northern Ireland hasn’t escaped the fires and there, the long term impact on the habitat is also being highlighted on top of the immediate impact.
One additional tragedy that always accompanies the media coverage of the fires and the heroic efforts to get them under control is that it will prompt idiots to set more fires. We need rain.
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I’m so pleased that, at last, we can tell you all that this year’s BBC 2 Springwatch programme will be based at our wonderful RSPB Ynys-hir nature reserve in Wales.
At which point I have two guilty secrets to confess – first it is over 30 years since I visited Ynys-hir and secondly that following a very convivial evening in a pub I was, well, tired and emotional resulting in the need for a short sleep in one of the hides. I was on my own when I dozed off but when I eventually woke up it was with some surprise as the hide was now full and everyone was looking at me.
At least it felt like that, actually what I had failed to notice was that a redstart was busily feeding young in a nest just a few feet from the hide and the rest of them were having to watch whilst peering round my slumbering form.
However, I did recover and greatly enjoyed the visit. We saw only the second ever marsh harrier recorded at Ynys-hir (but this was back in June 1981) on a weekend away with the RSPB Leeds Local group.
The decedents of those redstarts will no doubt make an appearance on Springwatch – along with so much else. Ynys-hir translates as ‘long island’ in English. The reserve is one of those magical places where woodlands meet wetlands and the sea meets the land; the mix yields an abundance of nature.
Ynys-hir - the woodland and wetland
There’s little doubt that Ynys-hir comes from the top draw of special places – and you can watch a taster of the place on the home page of this website (but you can do that later).
There will be more than 50 cameras hidden around the reserve, all feeding into the programme. Birds, of course, will feature but as part of a wider cast of wildlife.
We’re celebrating the centenary of the RSPB in Wales this year, we started by protecting roseate terns on Lyanddwyn Island, Anglesey and seabirds on the Pembrokeshire islands.
Ynys-hir is a vital part of our story in Wales, in 1969 the naturalist and writer, William Condry, tipped us off that there was a piece of land for sale at Ynys-hir. We bought it and William became the reserve’s first warden.
So let’s fast forward to the spring of 2011, there has been a huge amount of work going into getting ready for Springwatch – and I’m sure you will all fall in love with the place (if you haven’t already). We’ll be celebrating this marriage of the BBC’s Springwatch programme and our reserve as the spring unfolds – the place to keep up to date with the inside story from the reserve is here on the Ynys-hir blog (though no doubt I’ll keep you loyal Saving Special Places blog readers up to date).
We’ll be joining with Springwatch’s online activities and coming up with ideas of how you can make the most of spring.
Behind the wildlife dramas that make Springwatch such compelling viewing are many stories of conservation success and the challenges ahead and we’ll highlight opportunities where you can help by stepping up for nature.
Springwatch returns to our screens on Monday 30 May BBC 2 at 8 o’clock.
I expressed the hope in yesterday’s blog post that the twite that are just starting to nest in the South Pennines had escaped the worst of the moorland fires.
The news isn’t good.
Now twite need some introduction, as they are aren’t very well known. Their close relative, the linnet, is much more familiar. Their name comes from the nasal call they make as the bound across the heather. A close-up view reveals a yellow bill and pale pink rump.
Twite used to be a characteristic bird of the South Pennines, not hard to find in rough triangle of uplands between Huddersfield, Bradford and Rochdale. They nest in the heather but depend on an abundance of weed seeds through out the spring and summer – they absolutely depend on the presence of good quality hay meadows.
The population in the South Pennines is under huge pressure already with perhaps no more than 100 pairs remaining – my colleagues in the area are estimating that as much as 40% of them could have been affected by the fires currently gripping the area. The South Pennines is one of Europe’s top wildlife locations and is designated as a Special Protection Area.
Now, it’s way to early to know exactly how serious the impact is – there’s a chance birds could relocate as it is still early in their breeding season – but it is undoubtedly a blow to the efforts to reverse the fortunes of this engaging little finch. We are part of the England Twite Recovery Project (which is a partnership between: the RSPB; Natural England; Pennine Prospects – The Watershed Landscape Project; and Kirklees Council) and we’re working with farmers to help keep hay meadows as a feature in the landscape of the area, they are important in their own right but without them the future for the twites in England is bleak.
The impact of these fires highlights the risks that befall wildlife when numbers re reduced and the population is restricted to a few key areas – their vulnerability to a disaster increases. It is made even worse knowing that some of these fires will have been deliberately set.
Our thoughts and thanks go to the people who are fighting the fires.
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In 1997 there were just 11 booming bitterns in Britain. Bitterns, once memorably likened to a toasted heron by a young visitor to one of our reedbed nature reserves, have had a tough time. Driven to Victorian extinction, the fortunes of this secretive wetland dweller during the twentieth century were linked to the extent and quality of the right reedbed habitat.
Boom time for the toasted heron
The low point in 1997 marked a watershed – if this bird was to make a comeback then we needed a plan, one that didn’t just concentrate on the flagship bittern but one that started to restore and recreate some seriously special places.
So today’s news that there are at least 18 booming males in Somerset’s Avalon Marshes is a fantastic payback for 15 years of hard work. The booming, of course, is the sonorous call of the male bittern so it will be later in the year before we fully know the outcome of the season – but the signs are good.
Now let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves – bitterns in the UK are still not common, but their story is an important one as it shows that decline and loss is not an inevitable fate for the natural world. Make the right choice and nature can make a comeback. It’s a lesson that is at the heart of our new campaign, Stepping Up for Nature, we going to keep the pressure on to stop the declines of wildlife and start their recovery – not easy or short term, but achievable.
And we aren’t alone – the funding for the Avalon Marshes (which includes the RSPB Ham Wall reserve) was part of an EU LIFE-Nature funding programme to reverse bittern declines. Last year the site was one of 47 across the country with nesting bitterns – and gained extra fame as only the second place in the UK to host nesting little bitterns. The partnership is a close collaboration between ourselves, Natural England and the Somerset Wildlife Trust. The future is exciting as we are now getting on with the £1.8m Heritage Lottery Funded Avalon Marshes Landscape Partnership.
While I’m on – the RSPB Community Pages will be off for a refit for three days starting on 16 May. But you will still be able to follow me on twitter.
One of the nice things about working at the RSPB’s HQ is that you bump into so many great people. Serah Munguti was the latest, she has featured in these posts before as she fights to save the Tana River Delta and other vital places in Kenya.
Serah visiting the Tana River
I snatched a quick conversation with her between meetings. She’s over here simply because the pressures that threaten natural resources and the communities that depend on them often come from Europe – most recently the insane rush for un-sustainable bio-fuels. Serah promised to send us an article describing her work, and here it is.
Please don’t forget that the RSPB Community pages will be getting a major overhaul next week so won’t be available from Monday 16 May for three days.