After an absence of nearly 30 years, choughs returned naturally to Cornwall in 2001 when 3 pioneering birds from Ireland settled on the Lizard peninsula. Choughs have successfully bred every year since their return, establishing a small population which is gradually re-colonising the Cornish coast. There are now almost 40 Cornish choughs frequenting the cliffs from Padstow in north Cornwall, the Penwith and Lizard areas, and even as far west as the Roseland peninsula. Members of the crow family, choughs are identifiable by their bright red legs and bill, their rasping ‘cheeow’ call and their daring acrobatics whilst in flight.
Choughs are coastal birds, whose favoured habitat is short maritime grassland and heathland, grazed coastal slopes and cliff–top pastures which provide insect-rich areas for foraging, and high cliffs and sea caves which offer safe sites for nesting. Loss of suitable habitat played a central role in the chough’s demise in the region; as traditional farming methods shifted, stock no longer grazed the cliffs year-round, and the favoured short-sward pastures became rank and unusable for the birds. Now that choughs have returned to Cornwall, establishing sufficient habitat to support the growing population is a priority.
Choughs ‘digging’ for insects in short maritime grassland. (Image: ©Anthony Miners).
Choughs are ground feeders which specialise in digging out invertebrates from exposed soil and short open swards using their strong curved bills – Palores their Cornish name translates as digger! Crane fly larvae are their most favoured prey, with beetles, ants and their larvae also very important. Ideal habitat features a mosaic of vegetation that includes large areas of weather maintained cliff slope with plenty of bare earth exposures, and grazed slopes and pastures where sward heights are shorter with an open structure, so that the birds can access the earth to forage. Choughs have a close association with grazing animals, whose dung provides a rich source of invertebrates – a particularly important food source for young birds. The year-round grazing of coastal slopes and heathland by cattle, ponies and sheep helps keeps invasive scrub at bay and maintains the open mosaic grassland which is so important for these captivating crows.
Choughs are closely associated with grazing animals which maintain the open grassland mosaic needed for them to forage. (Image: ©Tony Blunden)
In the breeding season good foraging habitat should be in close proximity to nest sites to increase breeding success – ideally within 300 metres. In the autumn and winter months choughs also target seeds, so leaving spring-sown stubbles over winter provides an important supplementary food source. Additional features which are important for choughs include traditional stone and earth banks, and well-walked footpath areas, where the very short turf and bare earth can be probed for invertebrates.
Chough foraging in a traditional stone and earth bank. (Image: ©Alan Murray).
Land management practices which are detrimental to choughs include abandonment leading to bracken, bramble and scrub, low grazing pressure, winter sown cereals, habitat monoculture and intensive use of avermectin de-worming drugs. Much of the work undertaken to improve habitat for choughs has been through targeted use of agri-environment schemes to reduce these practices and encourage a mosaic of vegetation. Farmers and land managers around Cornwall’s coast have been very supportive and embraced management for choughs, often their hard work and dedication turning long abandoned areas back to beautiful species-rich grasslands.
Grazing management for choughs has also benefitted the floristic and invertebrate diversity of maritime grasslands. (Image: © Geoff Rogers)
Such conservation management has also benefited other priority species which have suffered due to the decline of grazing on the Cornish coastal fringe. Cornwall’s species-rich maritime grassland is home to numerous declining species, including 19 UK BAP priority species. These include plants such as wild asparagus Asparagus prostrates, rare and threatened invertebrates such as the silver-studded blue Plebejus argus, as well as BAP vertebrate species such as the greater horseshoe bat Rhinolophus ferrumequinum, the corn bunting Emberiza calandra, the cirl bunting Emberiza cirlus and the slow-worm Anguis fragilis. Like choughs, these species rely on a mosaic of heathland and grassland, scrub and hedgerows, alongside associated farmed habitats. Re-instatement of grazing, scrub removal and over-wintering of stubble in critical areas is essential to their conservation.
Most importantly, a good variety of practices on any one site can maximise conservation benefit to numerous species. The long-term success of choughs in Cornwall relies on an integrated approach, which works with land managers to continue to maintain favourable habitat, whilst recognising the challenges and realities of modern farming systems.
By Claire Mucklow, RSPB Project Manager
Interested in keeping up-to-date with news on Cornwall’s choughs?
The RSPB produces an annual newsletter: Contact Claire Mucklow for details: firstname.lastname@example.org
You can also keep track online at www.cornishchoughs.org and on Twitter @cornishchoughs
The Halting Environmental Loss Project (HELP) got underway in spring 2011 in the Glenwherry area of the Antrim Hills. The aim of the project was to maintain or improve the population of breeding waders (in this case curlew, lapwing and snipe), in one of their last remaining strongholds in Northern Ireland. Now, nearly four years on, the RSPB has just hosted an event to celebrate the projects success in producing a remarkable recovery in the fortunes of these birds thanks to the efforts of over 60 local farmers.
The average project farm in Glenwherry is around 100 hectares in size, consisting of large areas of unimproved rush pasture, with a few improved grazing and silage fields close to the farm yard. Farms are typically managed for beef and sheep. Targeted advice was available to all farmers living in the area whose land had the potential to support breeding waders. Around half of farmers were in an agri-environment scheme with breeding wader options when the project began.
Image 1: The view from the summit of Slemish Mountain showing lands at the heart of the project.
Right from the beginning, farmers took on board advice from their local RSPB Project Officer and have been working hard to improve habitat conditions for waders ever since. During the lifetime of the project over 680 hectares of rush has been controlled, 15 wader scrapes have been created, scrub and trees have been removed and grazing regimes fine tuned. Farmers have attended training events, machinery demonstrations and hosted guided walks.
Image 2: An example of a newly created wader scrape
Annual surveys have revealed an increasing number of breeding pairs each year of the project. In core plots there has been a 48% increase since 2011, while the number of pairs across the entire project area has increased by 28% in the last three years. Snipe have been the main benefactors, increasing from 30 pairs in 2011 to a staggering 98 pairs this year. They have moved into fields where rush has been cut, even more so if this has been backed up by cattle grazing or the creation of a wader scrape.
Closely monitored lapwing pairs have fledged an average of 1.1 chicks per pair during the lifetime of the project. This has enabled their numbers to increase from 29 pairs in 2011 to 37 pairs this year. Farmers have marked and avoided nests in crop and silage fields and have been kept up to date on the whereabouts of chicks by the Project Officer.
Image 3: Recently hatched lapwing chick
In 2013, a breeding wader survey was conducted across Northern Ireland by the RSPB, which estimated there could be as few as 256 breeding pairs of curlew left in the country, with a population decline of 82% recorded since 1986. However in Glenwherry, curlews are showing encouraging signs. Numbers have slowly increased during HELP and monitoring work has shown that hatching rates are now at the highest level ever recorded in the area (58% in 2014). A total of 39 pairs were present on project farms in 2014, making Glenwherry one of the premier sites for this species anywhere in Ireland.
Image 4: Adult curlew on lookout duty
A massive thank you to all project farmers for making this happen. However, we must not stop here, we must build upon this momentum and focus on getting populations closer to what they were in the 80’s, this may take a long time to achieve but if the last four years have shown us anything; it's that Glenwherry farmers are well worth the investment.
By Neal Warnock, RSPB Glenwherry Project Officer
All images © Neal Warnock
Winter is a tough time for wildlife, but especially so for those species which call farmland home. Many farmland bird species such as grey partridge, yellowhammer and corn bunting depend on seeds to survive. Other species such as thrushes and bullfinches depend on berries, fruit and grubs found along our hedgerows.
Hawthorn hedgerow with berries. Copyright: RSPB Images, Andy Hay
In arable areas the widespread change to autumn sowing of crops, reduction in over-winter stubbles as a result, increased use of herbicides which has removed many of the arable plants which set seed, increased efficiency of harvest leading to less spilt grain and the intensive management of hedgerows, have all combined to make our farms very challenging places for birds in the winter. There is a dearth of seeds and berries with the result that birds have to move to find food elsewhere, or perish.
An example of this was Hope Farm during the first winter (2000/01) of RSPB ownership. All our crops had been planted in the autumn, there was no over-winter stubble and no wild bird cover plots providing seed. Our farm bird count in December 2000 found a total of 203 birds of 22 species.
Since then we have relaxed our hedgerow management so the hedges are now dripping with berries for the thrushes and bullfinches, and use about 3ha of the farm to grow wild bird cover. Wild bird cover is mix of cereals and oilseeds which is left unharvested and provides lots of seeds for a variety of farmland bird species to eat.
Jack Kelly inspecting his wild bird cover in Down, N.Ireland. Copyright: RSPB Images, Andy Hay
Why is there a mix of crops in wild bird cover? Well, like you and I who probably have different favourite foods, a yellowhammer prefers cereals grains, such as wheat and triticale, or millet, whereas a linnet prefers oilseeds such as mustard or fodder rape. So we have to provide a range of crops to cater for the diversity of tastes in our birds!
The lenient hedgerow management and provision of wild bird cover is paid for though the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) via the agri-environment schemes. This is a critical mechanism to ensure farmers who do care for the wildlife on their farms and do provide these great habitats and resources are paid for doing so. In England, we are about to start a new agri-environment scheme, Countryside Stewardship. Farmers who are successful in applying for agreements and funding will be encouraged to put even more seed rich habitats around their farms, and manage their hedgerows to provide abundant berries for our winter visitors.
So has this worked at Hope Farm?
Last week a team from our Conservation Science department carried out the regular December count. It was a dry and fairly calm day, not too cold but still very wet underfoot. They covered the whole farm, recording all the birds as they went. Back at the farmhouse, over bacon and eggs, the counts were analysed and counted up.
The result: an amazing 1604 birds of 44 species! That’s nearly 8 times as many birds as in December 2000, and double the number of species.
What’s even more amazing is that we counted 236 yellowhammers alone, all using the wild bird cover crops. That’s more yellowhammers than all the birds in December 2000 added together. Really fantastic!!! Even better than that was the first tree sparrows wintering on the farm since 2000, maybe a little sign that this species is recovering from the cataclysmic declines of the 1980's and 1990's.
Tree sparrow feeding on seed. Copyright: RSPB Images, Andy Hay
You can tell, that as manager of Hope Farm, I am really proud of what we have achieved here. It is a huge pleasure to see these flocks of wintering birds, to tell you about them and to show them to our visitors.
So it would be great to hear what you have on your farm this winter. In fact, it would be even better if you could also take part in the GWCT Big Farmland Bird Count taking place from 7th to 15th February 2015, which encourages farmers to count the birds on their farms for half-an-hour and let GWCT know what you saw. Do bear in mind though, the more habitat and resources you provide, the more birds you may have. So if you want to have more than your neighbour, or us here at Hope Farm, then do apply for a Countryside Stewardship agreement when your current Environmental Stewardship agreement runs out, and put in place the best options for birds and other wildlife so you too can be loud and proud about the wildlife on your farm.