I know this is an odd request, but I'd be really grateful if you could collect owl pellets and post them to us. We need them to help educate youngsters about the importance of the UK's wonderful wildlife-friendly farmers.
We use owl pellets at family fun days - children dissect the pellets as they learn about what owls eat and where they live. Farmland is an incredibly important habitat for owls, along with so much of our wildlife. So these family fun days are a great opportunity to educate youngsters (and their parents!) about the importance of wildlife-friendly farming, and the great UK farmers that hold the future of our countryside in their hands.
But we are running short of supplies! So if you are able to collect pellets without disturbing your owls, please just pop them in an envelope and send them to:
Louise BatesRSPB46 The GreenSouthe BarOxfordshireOX16 9AB
Thanks in advance!
Photo: John Bridges (rspb-images.com)
We are now well into the second year of the Great Crane Project – and have spent the spring and summer hatching and rearing another batch of cranes to joint the eighteen birds that were released last year. This brings the number out on the Somerset Levels and Moors to 34. After three weeks of ‘anchoring’ within a pre-release aviary through August, the 16 new birds are now free to come and go from the release pen. They are entering an exciting period in their lives as they mix with last year’s birds and explore their new habitat.
(Like this pic? You can see more recent photos at www.facebook.com/thegreatcraneproject)
All the cranes are being very closely monitored using a combination of satellite telemetry, radio tags, and colour rings to establish what habitats they are using. Last year’s birds have recently been feeding on soil invertebrates in pasture, dragonflies and craneflies, and also finding left-over grain in wheat stubble fields. They roost at night in the safety of shallow pools within wet grassland and swampy parts of the Somerset Levels and Moors.
The support of the farming community is vital in this project. In partnership with local farmers we have established plots of un-harvested maize and barley on nearby private farm land that should provide food for the birds through the autumn. The project will shortly be producing an advisory leaflet that outlines what farmers can do to help the cranes’ return to Somerset. If you would like a copy – phone Damon on the number below or contact him via the website.
The project works with local schools and community groups to raise awareness of the importance of our local wetlands for wildlife in conjunction with Somerset Art Works. This has involved painting crane silhouettes, and making crane sculptures and wire-work which you can read about here: http://greatcraneart.blogspot.com/
You can follow the progress of the project through the project teams’ blogs on the Great Crane Project website: www.thegreatcraneproject.org.uk
The Great Crane Project is a partnership between The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, The RSPB, Pensthorpe Conservation Trust and Viridor Credits Environmental Company. Our aim is to restore healthy populations of wild cranes throughout the UK, so that people can once again experience these beautiful birds.
For more information, please contact Damon Bridge, Project Manager – The Great Crane Project on 01458 254 414
By Derek Gruar, RSPB Conservation Science, Hope Farm
All inspections and ringing of nesting barn owls on the farm are covered by a Natural England S1 Disturbance Licence.
For only the second time in the eleven years since RSPB became the owners of Hope Farm, we are pleased to be the custodians of a family of barn owls nesting in one of the three special owl nest boxes that we have sited around the farm.
Adult owls were first observed in the box in late June during a routine check of nest boxes. The first eggs were recorded two weeks later and a full clutch of seven eggs was laid.
Incubation for barn owls takes 4-5 weeks, so during this period we didn’t disturb the birds and the first nestlings were seen about a month after we had confirmed the clutch size.
The eggs are laid and hatch a couple of days apart, giving a range of ages within a brood. This acts as a safeguard for the owls to fledge at least one chick, as it is not uncommon for the oldest chicks to prey upon the youngest in lean times. Happily in this case when the nest was checked again, six of the seven eggs hatched and all chicks were doing well three weeks after the first chick hatched.
In mid-September when the six chicks were aged between 40 to 50 days old, the birds were fitted with individually numbered rings, thus enabling us to determine the fate of these birds in the future and possibly giving us an idea of how far they disperse into the local landscape.
For all six chicks to reach this age suggests that there is a good supply of small rodents on which these birds prey upon. Here at Hope Farm, we have created a series of different field margins that are attractive to small mammals and in turn these margins used by birds such as barn owls and kestrels.
We expect that the first birds will fledge in late September or early October and we will keep you posted on the outcome.
If you'd like to build an owl box to encourage barn owls onto your your farm, find out how to build it and where to site it here.
By Ian Dillon, Hope Farm Manager
As we enter the autumn it is time to reflect on the harvest and breeding season at Hope Farm. Farming is always a challenging business. Not enough rain, too much rain, too cold, crop damage from woodpigeons or rabbits, cost of fertiliser – the list of events that can seriously impact on how much wheat, oilseed rape or field beans is grown is endless.
This year was definitely a tale of two extremes. Conditions in the winter were more akin to those expected in northern Scotland: prolonged snowfall and heavy frosts. This was followed by an official drought with only 36 mm of rain falling between February and May.
The lack of rain in particular can have a serious impact on the crops. Low rainfall leads to poor growth of the seed heads. However, our soil type is heavy clay. We often bemoan this for a multitude of reasons, but this year it was our saviour.
The clay held on to moisture long after sandier soils had dried up, allowing the crops to develop better than expected given the lack of rainfall. Considering the drought our yields were very acceptable, but still markedly lower than three years ago – the last near-perfect growing season.
Normally our wheat is grown for animal feed. This is primarily because these varieties tend to be resistant to infestation by harmful insects and fungi. Recent advances though have allowed biscuit-grade varieties to be developed which show similar resistance. This allows us to avoid using particularly harmful pesticides and fungicides. So, when we dunk our biscuits in tea this winter we can be happy with the thought that this biscuit may just have come from the farm!
Birds have also done very well. I am constantly amazed at how bird numbers have increased since we bought the farm in 1999. For instance, we recorded 10 skylark territories in 2000, but 43 in 2011. That is a remarkable increase. Other species, such as linnets, have responded even better.
What is even more remarkable about these increases is that we have managed to achieve this without impacting on our core cropping and while these same species are declining drastically elsewhere in the UK.
Simple, well-targeted management providing safe nesting habitat, an abundance of feeding opportunities during the breeding season so that chicks can grow rapidly and plenty of winter food through wild bird crops, have clearly delivered substantial rewards. The increase in bird numbers has been a really fantastic success story.
But Cornish Dumplings? One of the species which has declined most in number and range across UK farmland are corn buntings, colloquially known as Cornish Dumplings in Cornwall. There are 80% less now than in the 1970s. A very sad and worrying state of affairs.
However, for the first time since 2001 we managed to attract two pairs to set up territory on the farm, around one of research areas. We were really pleased to have attracted them and hope that they will return for many years to come.
As I sit in the farmhouse kitchen having my mid-afternoon cup of tea I am looking at my biscuit and at the corn bunting photo on the wall. For me there is only one winner - Cornish Dumpling, please!
Photo: Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
Back in the Wilkinson years, before Batty turned England Captain, before Kamara turned Sky pundit, and before Eric turned Red, I was a Leeds fan. Me and Dad had season tickets in the East Stand and never missed a home game. Eventually the endless 0-0 draws under George Graham put me off football altogether, so nowadays, I use my spectating experience to help me judge land areas.
Have a go – picture yourself on the pitch. That’s 0.7 ha. Big isn’t it?
Now imagine a bit of the pitch that is less than 1/8 the size of the six-yard box. Tiny isn’t it?
This is about the size of a skylark plot. These 16m2 ‘gaps’ in winter cereals were pioneered at the RSPB’s Hope Farm and are now an Entry Level Stewardship option.
Gappy midfield - skylarks, corn buntings and yellow wagtails all benefit from plots in winter cereals
Plots are easy to establish and manage, and allow easier foraging for busy skylark parents. Nearby nests produce more chicks per year, and the chicks are heavier at fledging, increasing their likelihood of surviving the winter. Including just 20 of these per 100 ha of farmed land – at the rate of just one or two on the whole of our notional football pitch – would go a long way to reversing skylark declines.
Despite all this, busting the myths surrounding skylark plots is no easy game. So let’s hoof a few misconceptions into Row Z:
‘We’ve got loads of skylarks on our farm’ - Probably so. A winter cereal field looks fine to a skylark in early spring. But things are less ideal by May, when it’s struggling to rear chicks in a dense jungle of cereal stems. The fact is there are less than half the skylarks now than there were in 1970.
‘There’s lots of bare ground in the “tram lines”’ – Yes, and skylarks have noticed this too, but nests near to these will be vulnerable to damage from operations and easily found by predators like foxes.
‘I’m not having holes in my crop for my neighbours to laugh at’ – On a per area basis, skylark plots are by far the best paid Stewardship option. They have a negligible effect on yield. When the neighbours learn what they’re missing, they won’t be laughing, they’ll be sick as a parrot.
I make that 3-0! Except with skylark plots, it’s win-win. Many Fen farmers are realising this. I know of over 2,000 plots that will be created as the wheat goes in this autumn.
Hopefully we’ll get to hear a few more skylarks sing when they’re winning.