Over in the east of our region lies the UK’s largest area of chalk downland, a special habitat that sparkles in summer with the blooms of many miniature flowering grassland plants, whose nectar attracts butterflies including small blues and marbled whites. Protecting and re-creating more of this special habitat is one of the RSPB’s priorities – read about progress to save chalk downland on our nature reserves in Wiltshire in the latest edition of our Chalk Country newsletter.
We’ve been working with farmers, landowners, the army and other defence organisations for more than 30 years to save stone-curlews in Wessex.
This weird `goggle-eyed plover’ is a nocturnal wading bird and summer migrant to the UK (Wessex and the Brecks) that breeds on dry ground – including arable fields and chalk downland. Important areas for it are on and around Salisbury Plain Training Area and Porton Down – which are also where the biggest areas of chalk grassland remain. Farmers have worked in partnership with the RSPB to create suitable breeding habitat, including special fallow plots, which are available within agri-environment schemes. Without this work, and the efforts of our field staff and volunteers each summer to protect the camouflaged eggs and chicks, many breeding attempts would fail. Last year was another productive season – 91 chicks fledged from the 130 pairs we monitored in Wessex – but we need to find ways of making the birds less reliant on human interventions to save their nests.
But while things are looking better for stone-curlews, our other curlew faces a much more uncertain future. The wonderful bubbling cry of the common curlew could be lost – the UK’s breeding population of this large brown wader with its spectacular long curved bill has dropped by more than 40% in recent decades. As part of work to help this bird by targeting land management (it breeds in traditional grasslands such as haymeadows but many of these have been lost to intensive management such as silaging), the RSPB is appealing for people to report sightings (or hearings!) of curlews in Wiltshire. e birds less reliant on human interventions to save their nests.
None of the RSPB work to help farmland birds would be possible without the cooperation and enthusiasm of many individual farmers and landowners. Henry Edmunds, whose farms straddles the Wiltshire/Hampshire border, explains how he cares for and encourages his lapwings. While numbers of lapwings in the UK increase in winter when continental migrants seek refuge here, numbers of breeding birds have fallen and they face similar problems to stone-curlews in finding suitable and safe nesting habitat that is close to grazed pasture where the parents walk their chicks after hatching. For a sustainable future for lapwings, we need to have agri-environment schemes to enable farmers to provide fallow plots for nesting close to grazed pasture where the chicks can feed until they fledge.
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You may have seen media coverage recently about designation of some new Marine Conservation Zones, including around parts of our region’s coast. The RSPB welcomes these. However, we are still concerned that important foraging areas for mobile species, such as our seabirds, are not properly protected and so able to be safeguarded from harmful activities to ensure a safe future for seabirds at sea as well as when they breed on land.
The importance of the south west for some of our region’s seabirds is highlighted in the latest edition of our annual Seabirds South West newsletter . . .
Last summer a team of RSPB staff and volunteers surveyed seabirds on the Isles of Scilly. This all species, all islands count involved a lot of getting off small boats and scrambling onto islands and then counting all the different species including gulls, auks and shags. And for burrow nesting species such as Manx shearwater and storm petrel, it involved monitoring playback responses from underground burrows and night surveys. It was great to report breeding success for both these species on St Agnes and Gugh – islands where the removal of rats by the Isles of Scilly Seabird Recovery Project www.ios-seabirds.org.uk two years ago has enabled successful breeding for both. Our surveyors found storm petrel chicks on St Agnes for the first time in living memory! The survey found significant increases in numbers of Manx shearwater, guillemot and razorbill on the islands, but sadly significant decreases in kittiwake, common tern, herring and lesser black-backed gull, shag and cormorant. We will now examine the results and see what can be done to restore those species that are decline on the islands, and to ensure that the Isles of Scilly remains a premier seabird site.
Our Dorset little tern protection project at Chesil Beach had another successful year, enabling the 33 pairs to fledge 34 young – a great result for this delicate bird on its only breeding site in the region.
In August last year RSPB staff and volunteers joined with MARINElife for a synchronised survey of Balearic shearwaters that involved people counting from a series of coast watch points and from boats. This critically endangered seabird visits SW inshore areas over the late summer to early autumn period to feed and we wanted to see how many birds were using inshore waters around our coast and whether any areas were more favoured. We’ll be sharing the results in our next Seabirds South West newsletter.
And finally we highlighted the problems facing our large gulls. Herring and lesser black-backed gulls nest around the coast and in many inland locations. Unfortunately their presence on roofs sometimes leads to conflict with some people. Both species are of conservation concern. We need to know more about current population numbers and reasons for declines in coastal populations, and examine ways of co-existing with gulls in urban environments. For example, gulls will break open rubbish bags and scatter waste food – but perhaps the solution there is changing our human behaviour so we don’t let so much food go to waste in the first place and put our waste in `gull proof’ containers?
You may have seen some coverage in today’s newspapers about the management of deer at our reserve in Arne, Dorset, in 2010/11, in a story orchestrated by “You Forgot the Birds”. Here is the RSPB’s response in full:
Over the last decade the sika deer population in Purbeck, Dorset, has increased to a point where the numbers had to be reduced to prevent damage to sites, like the RSPB’s Arne reserve, and to prevent the animals starving as there was insufficient food for such a large herd.
The need to cull deer is a matter of last resort for the RSPB. When it is necessary we insist on high standards of professionalism, especially relating to animal welfare.
In many cases we are required by the regulator – in this case Natural England - to reduce deer numbers to prevent damage to internationally-important sites. We work within guidelines of the Deer Initiative (http://www.thedeerinitiative.co.uk/)
In 2005, the RSPB employed a local deer stalker – Mr Johnny O’Brien - to reduce the number of deer on site. Because of the well-known threat to human and wildlife health and environmental issues surrounding the use of lead, in 2009, the RSPB began a phased change to copper ammunition at all sites where deer numbers need to be reduced. Mr O’Brien agreed to change from the 2010/11 season.
Despite no problems occurring at other RSPB sites across the UK with the transition to copper ammunition, backed up by a scientific trial, it appeared that Mr O’Brien had an issue. It was revealed that Mr O’Brien was using a caliber of weapon that was too small for copper to be effective, compared with lead. Mr O’Brien was asked to make the switch. Although meeting some resistance from Mr O’Brien, he made the change after which there were no further problems reported.
Two years ago, the RSPB invited deer stalkers to tender competitively for the Arne contract. The new contractor has been using copper ammunition without issue, in common with other sites.
Gwyn Williams, RSPB Head of Reserves, said: “The RSPB became aware that Mr O’Brien’s preferred use of a small caliber rifle with our requested use of copper ammunition was an issue, and we asked him to change rifle. There has been no subsequent problem at Arne or any other RSPB site.
“The use of lead ammunition is a serious issue. As the venison often enters the human food chain, we have a duty of care to consumers. We followed the guidance of states like California, which banned the use of lead ammunition based on these concerns.”
The RSPB advises its contractors to only make a shot if there is no risk to people or other wildlife. Using this guidance, the RSPB does not believe that ricochet is a particular problem.