The Tree Sparrow is one of our rarest birds associated with lowland and mixed farmland, having undergone declines of 90% between 1970-2012*. It was a source of great excitement therefore when 24 birds were photographed feeding at a supplementary feeding table on RSPB’s Hope Farm in November 2014. The photo was taken by remote camera as part of a UEA MSc project by Holly Neville-Smith testing the effectiveness of different remote camera units for photographing farmland birds. The location of the feeding table within 5m of a sown wild bird mix was chosen to maximize the number of birds that would potentially visit the table, and shows the importance of winter seed food in attracting and supporting granivorous birds. At their peak it is estimated that up to 25 Tree Sparrows were present on the farm overall, since then the birds have dispersed, with small numbers present into February 2015.
Image 1: 24 Tree Sparrows seen feeding on a ground feeding table near to a sown wild bird mix on Hope Farm, November 2014
The image above highlights one of the ‘Big 3’ requirements of the Tree Sparrow, abundant seed food throughout the winter. These winter seed sources have declined in lowland and mixed farmland areas, mainly due to declines in over-wintered stubbles, use of broad-spectrum herbicides and more efficient harvesting techniques. Management at Hope Farm has sought to attract winter seed-eating birds by providing sown areas of wild bird mix. This supplies a reliable seed source for most of the winter and thus provides crucial support for species such as Tree Sparrow and Yellowhammer during the leanest months. The sown bird mixes typically contain millet, quinoa, barley, triticale and fodder radish, an energy-rich mix essential for birds survival in prolonged cold weather.
The second of the Tree Sparrow’s ‘big 3’ requirements is availability of suitable, protected nest sites. Tree Sparrows will nest in farm buildings, holes in trees, nest boxes and even dense bushes. Farm Researcher Derek Gruar, with the help of volunteers like Mo Reeves, has been placing nest boxes at selected locations around the farm, “hopefully these next boxes might help Tree Sparrows re-colonise the area for the first time in 30-40 years” said Derek.
Image 2: Derek, helped by Mo, puts up tree sparrow box 8 (TS8) at the far southern end of the farm, near where Tree Sparrows were seen feeding in November.
In all, ten Tree sparrow boxes have been positioned around the farm, providing a valuable supplement to natural nest sites in the area, such as old trees with nest holes and large, thick hedges.
Image 3: Box TS8 (top right) is located adjacent to an area of woodland that was known to support a population of breeding Tree Sparrows in the 1960’s. Could 2015 be the year of their return?
Image 4: Box TS9, just visible halfway up on the left trunk, located next to a larger starling nest box.
Image 5: Looking North across a sown wild bird mix towards the wood and up along the field boundary with wide grass margins.
In addition to winter food and safe nesting habitat, Tree Sparrows need a good supply of insects to feed their young if they are to breed successfully. Insect food for chicks in spring and summer is therefore the third of the ‘Big 3’ requirements for Tree Sparrows on lowland and mixed farmland. On Hope farm, grass margins (like that seen in the distance in Image 5) and flower-rich margins provide habitat for insects which the adults bring back to the nest. Insects may also be gleaned from hedgerows, conservation headlands, waterside vegetation and crops.
Crucially the ‘Big 3’, winter food, nesting habitat and spring/summer food, are all present at Hope Farm, and the appearance of the Tree Sparrows this winter offers some hope that pairs may ‘hang around’ and prospect for nest sites in the next few weeks. The return of the Tree Sparrow as breeding species at the Farm after nearly 4 decades would be truly momentous, so watch this space for further updates.
For more detailed information on how to manage for Tree Sparrows on lowland arable and mixed farms, including links to downloadable materials check here:
To find out more about the work at Hope Farm see the website here or look out for updates on this blog.
On Twitter follow @AgriODowd for the latest news on RSPB related Farming stories.
By Rebecca O’Dowd, RSPB Agricultural Communications Manager.
Image 1: Holly Neville-Smith. Images 2-5 Rebecca O'Dowd
* State of the UK’s Birds 2014: http://www.rspb.org.uk/Images/state-of-the-uks-birds_tcm9-383971.pdf
The Cirl Bunting Reintroduction Project - a partnership project between the RSPB, Natural England (NE), the National Trust and Paignton Zoo, with assistance from the Zoological Society of London – began in 2006. The aim of the project is to re-establish a self-sustaining population of cirl buntings on the Roseland Peninsula in south Cornwall, by taking chicks (under license from NE) from nests in healthy populations in south Devon, and translocating them to the site in south Cornwall. Here they have been hand-reared by aviculturalists from Paignton Zoo, and released into an area of suitable farmland habitat. Though reintroductions of other bird species, as well as other forms of wildlife, have been successfully undertaken in the UK and further afield, the reintroduction of a small, song bird like the cirl bunting has not been attempted before in Europe.
Image 1: Chicks are translocated from healthy populations in Devon to Cornwall where, after being hand-reared and ringed, they are released into an area of suitable farmland habitat. (Andy Hay: rspb-images.com)
The first batch of young birds was released in 2006, and releases have continued for a total of six years, until 2011. Throughout the project all the birds have been monitored by the field team – a process aided by the fact that all the hand-reared birds have been fitted with a unique combination of coloured leg-rings. This has allowed a great deal of information to be acquired relating to many aspects of the birds’ life histories, eg. their seasonal movements, habitat selection, breeding ecology and longevity.
Image 2: Colour-ringed adult male Cirl Bunting feeding at the Cornish release site. Ringing has provided valuable insights into the life-history of the species. (Andy Hay: rspb-images.com)
We have learnt that, just like in Devon, the Cornish birds do not wander far, choosing to settle in an area that, crucially, contains all their year-round requirements ie. weedy stubbles to forage for seeds in the winter, thick hedgerows where nests can be located away from disturbance and extensive grasslands rich in variety and abundance of insects to feed chicks in the summer. Thanks to the willingness of the local farming community to adopt Environmental Stewardship, in the form of HLS, more of this preferred habitat mosaic exists on the peninsula than it did just a few years ago.
Image 3: Habitat of Cirl Bunting on a Cornish farm. Thick hedgerows protect nesting Cirl Buntings from disturbance. (Andy Hay: rspb-images.com)
Image 4: Weedy stubbles are an important food source for foraging Cirl Buntings in the winter. (Andy Hay: rspb-images.com)
During the breeding season pairs are usually faithful, though we have recorded several instances of polygyny – one male breeding with two (even three!) females simultaneously - whilst ‘divorce’ – with partners from a pair splitting and re-pairing with different partners – is novel behaviour that has been recorded. Though cirl buntings are relatively short-lived, with 2-3 years being typical, the oldest known colour-ringed bird so far, died just one month short of his fifth birthday. We are hopeful that there are still a few remaining ringed individuals that stand a chance of exceeding that lifespan.
Following the first recorded breeding of the reintroduced birds in 2007, the population has been steadily increasing, both as a result of further releases, and due to productivity in the breeding population. Despite some poor summers, which have limited breeding success, the population exceeded its target level of 30 pairs in 2012, with 44 pairs recorded. However, the exceptionally wet summer of that year resulted in very low productivity, resulting in a decline in the population the following year. Fortunately, the following two summers have been a vast improvement and the population has responded well. Last year 39 pairs raised well over 100 fledged young – the highest number in any year by far - and we are optimistic that 50 breeding pairs is a realistic possibility this year – a great milestone to reach in the tenth year of the project and one step further forward in establishing this bird back in the Cornish landscape.
Image 5: Cirl Bunting habitat, unimproved grassland and gorse bushes. Farmer's help in providing suitable habitat in translocation areas, often via HLS, has been crucial to the Cirl Bunting's success. (Andy Hay: rspb-images.com)
The success so far shown from this project is a great example of team work – where various different individuals and organisations have worked collaboratively. We would like to thank all those who have supported the project over the years, in particular the farmers who have given us access to their land, which has enabled us to monitor the expanding population - without their support this project would not have worked.
For more information on the Cirl Bunting Re-introduction Project see the Project's pages online here .
By Stuart Croft: Cirl Bunting Reintroduction Project Officer
As many of you will be aware, agri-environment schemes in the UK are key to helping farmers deliver for wildlife. With the recent reform of Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), new or reviewed schemes are on the cusp of being launched, with guidance already available for the new scheme in Scotland.
In England, Defra have developed an entirely new scheme to replace Environmental Stewardship (ES), and in a fit of slightly confusing nostalgia, have gone back to the future and decided to call it Countryside Stewardship (CS). Those with longer memories than ten years will know this was the name of the predecessor to ES. And in many ways the new scheme attempts to combine the best bits of ES with the 1991-2004 version of Countryside Stewardship (which I’ll call ‘CSS’ to differentiate it from the new ‘CS’).
To replace the Entry and Higher Level Stewardship (ELS and HLS), CS will have a higher-tier and middle-tier. In addition to these, there will be a small Hedgerows and Boundaries Capital Grants Scheme. The higher-tier will look and feel much like HLS, but will be slightly simpler in its design. The middle-tier though will be quite different, with steps taken to iron out some of the design flaws that hindered the effectiveness of ELS as a scheme.
Image 1: Certain species and habitats, such as Lapwing (above) and other breeding waders in lowland wet grassland, will continue to be a focus of the higher-tier.
So where ELS allowed total free choice and offered the same £30 per ha payment rate for all, regardless of the options chosen, the CS middle-tier will be targeted, with payments made per option. Applications will also be competitive and made in a single annual window of July to September. These will then be ‘scored’ against each other, with those applicants that selected the options identified as a priority for their holding likely to fare best.
The aim of this change is to ensure that those who deliver the most for the environment get priority for what is a reduced budget, with a shift to ‘pounds per option’ rather than per hectare helping to rebalance the scheme toward the options that will be most effective, such as wild bird seed and pollen and nectar mixes. The ultimate ambition is that a better targeted, competitive scheme will lead to the right management in the right place, providing better outcomes for the environment and better value for money.
Image 2: Countryside Stewardship is designed to favour options, such as wild bird seed mix, which deliver more benefit for wildlife.
But although some of the changes are significant, this should be seen more as an evolution, rather than a revolution in scheme design. Although there has been much talk of ‘white space’, and many farmers, especially those in ELS, not being eligible, this is misplaced. All farmers will be able to apply for CS, and everywhere will be a priority for something. For example, the new Wild Pollinator and Farm Wildlife Package will be available throughout lowland England. The basis for competition will therefore not be where you are, but what you are willing to do.
These changes though are necessary. Although there are many examples of ELS agreements that really deliver, in general terms these are the exception rather than the norm. With the State of Nature report revealing ongoing declines across a broad array of wildlife, there is now a general recognition that ELS spread the jam too thinly, and that more focused, targeted and higher quality interventions are now needed. We’re hoping the farmers will embrace CS to deliver these.
Image 2: More targeted and quality interventions under Countryside Stewardship will help declining species like the Yellowhammer.
Many farmers will undoubtedly say, “with 5% greening, I can’t do anymore”. As many will come to see though, in the land of CAP greening, 5% doesn’t actually mean 5%. Through a series of labyrinthine weightings, coefficients and nitrogen fixing crops, many farmers will be able to deliver their greening requirements with a minimum of land take. We’d obviously encourage farmers to not go for the bare minimum, and as part of the Campaign for the Farmed Environment (CFE), we’re asking farmers to enhance their Ecological Focus Areas (EFAs) through voluntary action. A key part of this message is asking farmer coming out of ELS to retain what they’ve already got.
But it’s inescapable that retention isn’t enough. If you’re a farmer with a recently expired ELS agreement, or your agreement expires this year, or maybe you’ve never had one but want to do something for wildlife, we’d urge you to have a crack at Countryside Stewardship.
If you do, there is more information available on Defra’s website, with more guidance expected imminently. There may also be support available from the RSPB to help you, or perhaps one of our partner organisations such as The Wildlife Trusts, FWAG and GWCT.
By Tom Lancaster, RSPB Agriculture Policy Officer
Image 1: Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com), Image 2: Nikki Williamson, Image 3: Tom Marshall (rspb-images.com)