(Posted on behalf of Geoff Welch - International Management Plans Adviser. Geoff works in the RSPB's Partner Development Unit (Africa, Asia and UK Overseas Territories)
Dalverzin - 9-10 June
The third pilot site for the project is Dalverzin State Hunting Farm, situated 120 km south of Tashkent close to the border with Tajikistan. Unlike the other two sites, it already has a degree of protection. The main habitat of interest is the riverine forest, known locally as tugai, and one of the most threatened habitats in Uzbekistan. As in other parts of the country, the majority of the original forest on the farm was cleared about 50 years ago but several areas have been replanted over the years though, regrettably, sometimes with exotic species such as acacia.
As its name suggests, the main management objective of the farm is the rearing of game species for shooting, especially the local subspecies of pheasant, but other popular hunting species are wild boar and wintering wildfowl. The licence fees paid by hunters helps cover the management costs of the site and bag limits are strictly controlled. In addition to the pheasants, the tugai forest provides important habitat for several special species such as pallid scops owl, shikra, Turkestan tit and lots of white-winged woodpeckers.
Twenty-six rangers and senior managers from the farm attended the planning meeting and again there was lots of interesting discussion over issues relating to management and possible options for the future. Initial ideas are that UzSPB and the RSPB can assist with preparing a new management plan for the site concentrating particularly on more systematic restoration of tugai forest, wetland and grassland management and assisting with new plant and animal surveys. And yes, you’ve guessed it, the meeting was followed by another monster plov session! This time, though, we ate al fresco at a private picnic area on the banks of the Syrdarya river, a rather idyllic setting. For some reason, the river level was lower than normal which had exposed several small islands which held mixed colonies of common and little terns, collared pratincoles and several pairs of little ringed plovers. So while we ate there was a constant back and forth passage of feeding birds and lots of noise, occasionally building to a frenzied chattering when a marsh harrier, shikra or carrion crow made the mistake of flying over and the birds got up en masse to mob it.
After a short snooze (!) and, for some of our party, a welcoming and cooling swim in the river, we visited a small area where one of the ex-rangers is growing willow trees with an ‘understory’ of watermelons. The willows will eventually provide additional habitat for pheasants and the watermelons provide income for the ranger. This is a very simple and effective partnership and offers great potential for adaptation to tugai restoration. If we can persuade the farm’s management to experiment with growing a range of tugai species, rather than just willow, we could begin to restore areas of forest with a more natural mix of species which, in turn, will provide habitat for a wider range of wildlife. This particular willow plantation was close to the river and crossed by a power line on which were perched at least 120 blue-cheeked bee-eaters and 20 rollers – talk about technicolour - all taking advantage of the vast numbers of insects that were present in the grassland. Two hobbies were also joining in the feast, showing off by effortlessly catching and eating dragonflies in flight. As the sun began to set, the combination of open grassland, scattered trees and a cacophony of cicadas was reminiscent of the African savannah. At any moment you could imagine a small herd of elephants or wildebeest wandering across the horizon but in the end I had to settle for the howling of jackals, a good second best.
We spent the night in a small basic guesthouse on the farm and I braved the hordes of mosquitoes in an abortive attempt to hear pallid scops owl – better luck next time maybe? In the morning, before driving back to Tashkent, we had a quick look at one of the lakes on the farm and then visited a small wetland nearby, Sassykol, which is being rented privately and the owner is interested in managing it partly as a fish farm and partly for wildlife. At the moment it appears to be wall to wall reed and is crying out for restoration but, unfortunately, UzSPB is only in a position to provide advice rather than resources. However the potential of the area was obvious. There was a steady to and fro of purple and grey herons, the occasional night heron, a lone great white egret and, when the deafening, raucous songs of the clamorous reed warblers died down enough, a calling little bittern could be heard sounding like the barking of a small dog. There was obviously also some open water somewhere in the reedbed as a male ferruginous duck flew around from time to time and there was a trilling little grebe.
These three initial meetings (see other Uzbekistan blogs), although presenting a wide and complex range of issues that face conservation and sustainable management of natural areas in Uzbekistan, have highlighted several opportunities for UzSPB and the RSPB to work more closely with local communities. Even at this early stage, similarities between possible activities across the sites have begun to emerge which will maximise the limited resources currently available. I’m already looking forward to my next visit but preferably at a slightly cooler time of year!