If someone asked you where to go to see England’s best wetlands for wildlife, where would you suggest? The Fens? Somerset Levels?
Chances are that the valleys around the upper reaches of the Thames and its tributaries wouldn’t be the first area you’d think of. However, for waders, this is one of the best areas in southern England. In fact, there are more curlew breeding on farmland in the Upper Thames than anywhere else in southern England.And the overwhelming majority of this area is farmed. By actual, real farmers.
True, the magnificent Otmoor nature reserve does lie within the area, and is managed by the RSPB specifically for waders and other wetland specialists. But nature reserves alone will never be enough to save wildlife. For that, you need large areas of land. And in the Upper Thames, there’s over 27,000 hectares of floodplain that’s home to nature.
Many of the farmers along the Upper Thames have been quietly going out of their way for waders for years now. Over fifty of them have been keeping their pastures extensively managed, their meadows cut late to protect nesting birds, making and re-making scrapes and wet footdrains, and welcoming the volunteer surveyors that monitor the birds each spring.
Last November, my colleagues and I thought it was high time these farmers got a chance to see the overall results from their combined efforts.
Over twenty of the local farmers turned up on a cold, crisp morning to the village of Northmoor in Oxfordshire. The first fieldfares of winter were calling noisily as we climbed up onto a trailer for a tour of a nearby wet grassland site. Our host, Rob Florey, took us through the arable part of his farm, past excellent examples of hedges, buffer strips and even some wild bird seed mix.
We dismounted the trailer, and walked down towards the River Thames, where some very good-looking Ruby Red Devons were grazing. By their reaction, we were the most interesting thing they’d seen in ages. A shallow footdrain full of water ran the length of their field – a familiar sign that the RSPB’s rotary ditcher had worked here in recent years. This simple feature would provide plenty of crucial wet edge for lapwings and their chicks throughout the coming spring.
After enjoying the fresh air, we all headed back to the village hall for some extremely hearty soup and sweet, moist cake. Over the afternoon, and over coffee, we discussed how waders were faring across the Upper Thames.
Against backgrounds of national declines and a disastrous wet season in 2012, it was encouraging to see lapwing numbers seem to be roughly stable at around 100 pairs. Curlew had dipped slightly from around 50 pairs over 2005-8 to about 40 pairs, but hadn’t changed much since then. The more localised waders, redshank and snipe, were both increasing, reaching 54 and 14 pairs respectively in 2013.
It was a chance to ask these wildlife-friendly farmers what they enjoyed most about living and working in the area. What challenges did they most struggle with? What role could the RSPB take in future to support their conservation? It was a constructive and in-depth series of discussions, and my colleagues and I are looking to modify some of the regular project activities as a result.
Nearly five months on, spring is happening all around us. Farmers are busy nursing their tender crops, lambing, and the local RSPB team of staff and volunteers are gearing up for another season of wader surveying. With my 'volunteer’s hat on’, I’ll be covering a stretch of the Cherwell valley. I’m not especially looking forward to the very early starts in the cold, half-lit mornings. But the prospect of surveying for farmers in the floodplain always gets me a little excited as well. Because whether it’s s mass of hot-pink ragged robin flowers in some forgotten corner, or the silhouette of a curlew in a misty meadow, I never quite know what I might find.
As soon as I’d said it, I knew I was probably asking for trouble.
Mrs H was on the phone, asking about nest boxes for her farm in Warwickshire. She’d agreed to put up 20 new boxes as part of her Higher Level Stewardship agreement and wondered where she could buy some. Unfortunately, being a lady of considerable years, she was no longer in a position to shin up a ladder and nail them up herself either, so did we know anyone who might be able to put them up as well?
I hesitated for a moment. ‘I’m sure we can sort that out,’ I heard myself saying. ‘Leave it with me.’ Fatal.
Most of the nest boxes were intended for tree sparrows. Tree sparrows are fairly widespread across much of southern Warwickshire, but take a bit of finding. Many farms have a handful of pairs, chirping unseen around half-forgotten ponds, hiding quietly in holes in elm or oak trees in the hedges.
They’re a bit of a boom-and-bust bird. Give them a regular supply of seed food over winter, and safe nesting places, and their numbers respond quickly. And yet sometimes they just seem to collapse, or whole colonies suddenly disperse to sites many miles away. Nationally, their population crashed spectacularly between the late 1970s and early 1990s. Though they’ve seen some improvements over the last decade, their recovery has a long way to go, so they’re still very much a priority for conservation work.
Mrs H ordered the nest boxes – fine, sturdy ones from the RSPB shop – and a week or so later I found myself pulling up on a farm track just outside the village with a car-full of nest boxes, as well as an assortment of DIY kit borrowed from my garage.
My colleague, Glenn, arrived a few minutes later. Based in Birmingham, Glenn works across the county with new RSPB members and supporters, helping raise the vital income that keeps conservation work going. He’s a natural people person, and a chatty, charming chap. A few weeks ago he’d made the mistake of telling me he wanted some more ‘hands on’ conservation experience. He wanted to understand what ‘giving nature a home’ in the countryside. Well, I thought, this was the perfect opportunity for him. Plus I’d have someone to hold the ladder.
Mrs H appeared from her small bungalow, accompanied by her small dog who seemed intent on finding out what we’d brought for lunch.
‘How soft is the ground?’ I asked. Even though we were on top of a hill, there’d been so much rain over recent weeks that everywhere was saturated. Sure enough, there was no way we’d be able to get a vehicle across the fields. We were just going to have to carry all the equipment we needed ourselves. Glenn and I loaded up with our tools, a small ladder and as many boxes as we could manage, and set off.
Glenn ran into trouble at the first gate – literally. There was no way of avoiding the mud in the gateway, and the poor chap quickly found himself up to his ankles in thick, dark, Warwickshire mud. It oozed a bit, sucking tightly to his previously clean, bright shoes. ‘Did you not bring wellies?’ I asked. ‘I did say you’d need them.’
‘I thought these would be alright.’ Glenn looked down at his soggy feet. ‘Oh well.’ Fortunately it didn’t seem to dampen his spirit, or more importantly, hamper his ability to lug the equipment over two more fields.
We crossed a large grass field, flushing a few red-legged partridge, and came to the far corner. A small pond was tucked in the corner behind the sheep fencing. To one side were a couple of large oak trees, and in the hedge on the other side were a few elms that had grown big enough to poke their heads above the top of the hedge before succumbing. It looked good for tree sparrow nest-boxes.
Getting to the base of the trees was tricky though. Climbing over the barbed wire-topped fence wasn’t too bad, nor was pushing through the brambles that scrambled out from the hedge towards the fence. Our bags of kit kept catching on the thorns. However, the oaks looked good, until we came to look for a flat section of trunk to attach the box to. The whole thing was covered in ivy. Thick, sinuous ivy stems twisted and knotted themselves across the tree trunk. We spotted the flattest bit we could, firmed the ladder against the trunk and just about secured the first nest-box in position.
Further up the same tree we managed to screw a second nest box, but the next two had to go on the dead elms a few metres away. Around the same field we put clusters of boxes up in two more spots.
Finally, we were on a roll. After our somewhat shaky start, and doubtful logistical arrangements, Glenn and I managed to put up all the nest-boxes we’d brought. There were some very promising-looking sites across the farm, and it felt good to be doing something constructive outdoors. And I can honestly report that no safety rules were broken, and nothing more serious than some blackthorn scratches endured.
Apart from learning the importance of wellies on farmland, there was one other life lesson that Glenn took away that day.
At one stage, he was chatting away happily with Mrs H. He’d asked about the history of the farm, and she told him about what she remembered of working on the farm during the Second World War, how it had changed from being a mixed farm supporting several families, to a contractor-managed beef cattle farm. She remembered the woodland next door being planted, and farm buildings that were now barely visible as grass-covered stone.
‘You be careful,’ she interjected, as Glenn stretched a little to fix the last nest-box.‘I’m fine,’ Glenn grinned from mid-way up the ladder. ‘Don’t you worry, love.’There was a sudden, somewhat stony silence, and I looked over at Mrs H. She frowned briefly, and, turning away, said in a serious voice, ‘Don’t call me ‘love’.’Glenn looked sheepish, apologised, and the cheerful chatter quickly resumed between them.
I don’t think he’ll be calling any more hard-working farm women ‘love’. But I know we both are looking forward to hearing how the nest-boxes are used this spring. Perhaps we’ll even manage to pop by for a quick visit.
“Look, that lapwing’s banana-ing!” was the exclamation from my colleague.“It’s what?” I asked. “Banana-ing?”“Yes,” he replied. “When they’re displaying to potential mates, they often throw their heads back and stick their tails up in the air. They make themselves into a banana shape.”Everywhere I looked there were lapwings tumbling out of the air, skirmishing with each other on the ground, flashing black, white, and green.
Where was this wildlife spectacle? Not on a wild wetland nature reserve, or a heather-clad upland moor. This was in a carrot field.
The Isle of Axholme has a lot of these fields. Not all of them grow carrots, although many do produce a lot of the fresh vegetables that we’re used to seeing on the shop shelves – broccoli, cabbage, beetroot and onions. Many also grow more familiar arable crops, such as wheat and oilseed rape. The soils here are rich and fertile, but fragile. As well being one of most productive agricultural areas of the country, it’s one of the most important parts of England for wildlife associated with arable farming.
Farmland birds such as corn bunting, grey partridge, lapwing, tree sparrow and yellow wagtail are still a regular feature of daily farming life across the Isle of Axholme and the adjacent washlands along the river Idle.
Last year, my colleagues Anna and Jim ‘matched up’ six local farmers with 12 volunteer bird surveyors, in the first year of monitoring farmland birds in the area. Between them, the surveyors spent 228 hours surveying over 733 hectares across nine survey sites. Their highlights (in the table below) paint a picture of an open landscape where the big sky is still filled with skylark song, and the unobtrusive hedges are still home to proud yellowhammers and reed buntings.
This year, Anna and Jim will be expanding the network of monitored sites as part of the RSPB’s attempt to understand why this area is so valuable for wildlife, and to support those farmers who want to give their wildlife a helping hand.
Ahead of this spring’s farm surveys, we’re meeting up in the Red Lion in Epworth next Wednesday 26 March, at 7 pm. If you might be interested in having a bird survey on your farm, or in helping with them, drop Anna a line on 07736 722184 or email her at email@example.com. Get in touch before Monday 24 March to order your pub supper!