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Halting Environmental Loss Project

Calling curlew

The curlew is one of the species to be helped by HELP

The aim of HELP is to improve habitats for a range of priority species that have undergone severe declines in number and range. 

The species targeted for action are the chough, corncrake and breeding waders (curlew, lapwing, snipe and redshank). Habitat management work for these species will also benefit other wildlife including the great yellow bumblebee, Irish lady's tresses, marsh fritillary butterfly and Irish damselfly. 

In Northern Ireland, work focuses on several important areas for breeding waders; the Lough Foyle Polders, Lough Beg, Lough Erne and Glenwherry in Co. Antrim. In these areas, Project Officers provide training and advice for farmers on how to manage for waders.

The spotlight in the Republic of Ireland was originally on improving habitat for curlews, particularly in Donegal, but this has now expanded to cover breeding waders.

Corncrakes and choughs provide the focus for habitat improvement on Islay, Colonsay and Mull in Scotland.

As well as restoring wet grassland habitat, the project utilises natural heritage assets, particularly birds, educating locals and visitors alike and attracting tourists with the associated economic benefits to small rural islands.

Project objectives

  • Provide advice to over 160 farmers and crofters on managing land for breeding waders, corncrakes and choughs
  • Provide more than 28 training events for farmers in Northern Ireland, Scotland and County Donegal
  • Restore over 127 hectares (ha) of coastal and floodplain grazing marsh in Northern Ireland, through rush and scrub control
  • Deliver over 150 guided walks and 30 talks about local biodiversity in Scotland
  • Carry out over 50 species and habitat surveys on over 8,000 hectares
  • Survey for curlews at key sites in Counties Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan
  • Research the invertebrate assemblages associated with chough feeding areas on Islay
  • Recommend mechanisms to ensure the continuation of quality habitat management for breeding waders and choughs.

Key dates so far

  • Project officially launched in March 2011 at All Ireland Bird Conference
  • Breeding bird surveys completed for 2011, 2012 and 2013
  • Over 200 farmers/crofters working in partnership with RSPB and BirdWatch Ireland on habitat management
  • Farmer Celebration Event at NI Assembly in September 2012
  • Over 700 walks and talks delivered on Islay, Mull and Colonsay and over 78,000 visitors visited the RSPB's reserves
  • Full range of butterfly surveys completed on Argyll Islands
  • 160 Irish Lady's Tresses counted on Colonsay in 2013
  • 15 pairs of chough active in Islay and 3 pairs on Colonsay/Oronsay in 2013
  • Population of corncrakes on Islay maintains similar level to previous years, set against a 23 per cent decline across Scotland since 2012 with up to 40 per cent declines on other nearby islands
  • 3,850 m fencing complete on Islay by end of 2013, facilitating grazing management
  • 159 ha of land under management agreements for corncrake by the end of 2013
  • Nine management agreements with eight farmers in place in Donegal by July 2013, covering 192 ha
  • Physical works completed at three sites in Donegal including12 ha of rush cut, 10 ha limed, 8.3 ha scrub removal across the site, one sluice installed, one scrape created and ditches re-profiled
  • HELP Mid Term Review complete in Sept 2013
  • A series of Information Share Events in Donegal, Fermanagh, Rathlin, Islay and Colonsay
  • October 2013 - Mull Eagle Watch Received 5* award from Visit Scotland
  • Over 40 Training events on habitat management held for farmers, crofters and statutory agency officers between June 2011 and December 2013
  • Regular management advice provided to farmers, managing over 4490 ha land in Northern Ireland
  • Over 1,000 additional ha of rushes cut in NI
  • Significant increases in the population of breeding curlew, lapwing, snipe and redshank recorded at HELP sites in Northern Ireland since the baseline in 2011

Work planned or underway

HELP Officers continue to work closely with farmers and crofters to provide targeted habitat management advice. Work continues on direct habitat management at key RSPB and BirdWatch Ireland sites. Breeding bird surveys will be carried out on all HELP sites in 2014.

Results

Northern Ireland

Lough Erne

The Project Officer works with 150 farmers who manage roughly 2,500 ha of the Fermanagh landscape between them. Many years of creeping habitat change and associated factors had brought overall bird numbers on these sites down from 500+ pairs in 1986 to 98 pairs in 2011. In the less than three years, rush cutting has increased from 100 ha to 500 ha, encroaching scrub has been removed, and many hedgerows and crow vantage points have been lowered.

Even grazing levels have increased, opening up the sward on land that is often so wet that access to it for creatures without gills is difficult. The 98 pairs of 2011 have turned into 154 pairs in 2013. Naturally, there is much more to do, if one day we are to see the wetlands of Fermanagh returned to their full glory. But bringing the farmer centre-stage, as HELP has done, and pointing field management in the right direction is creating a genuine feel-good factor. 

Glenwherry 

By late February, lapwings began to return to traditional sites, with the first returning curlew seen on 5 March 2014. Since HELP began, over 200 visits have been made to more than 65 farms, 467 ha of rush has been controlled and 15 new wader scrapes created. Trees and scrub have been removed, drains re-profiled and grazing regimes fine tuned. As a result, breeding wader numbers are increasing.

Each spring, 2300 ha of suitable breeding wader habitat is surveyed to estimate curlew, lapwing and snipe numbers and further monitoring provides information on breeding success. 164 pairs were recorded in 2013, almost double the number in 2011 and up from 136 pairs in 2012 – a fantastic result!

In core survey areas, the number of pairs has increased by 52 per cent since 2011. The most striking increases have been in snipe. The hard work of local farmers, particularly rush control, has proved much to their liking and numbers have grown from 30 pairs in 2011 to a staggering 86 pairs this year. Lapwings have also increased from 29 pairs in 2011 to 41 pairs. The good news is that this trend looks set to continue due to an excellent breeding season in 2013. Monitoring work has shown that hatching rates have increased from 39 per cent to 56 per cent. 

Lough Beg

Over the past few years, and thanks to the efforts of local farmers working in partnership with the RSPB, breeding waders around Lough Beg have been bucking national trends. Lapwings have shown the most dramatic increase, from none just a few years ago to sixteen displaying pairs in 2013. 

Using the HELP-funded ‘Soucy’, a tractor with low pressure tracks instead of tyres, some 180 ha of rush has been controlled along the area known locally as the Strand and stock have been grazing late into the year, helping to keep the rush down and the grasslands open. In partnership with the RSPB and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, farmers have also been grazing with horses and removing scrub where it is beginning to invade the wonderfully diverse grasslands that contain extremely rare and endangered plants, such as the iconic Irish Lady’s Tresses Orchid. 

Lough Foyle 

Farmland along the shores of Lough Foyle is some of the most intensively farmed in Northern Ireland. Thanks to the efforts of local farmers, with around 50 pairs in 2013, the area remains extremely important areas for breeding lapwing. The HELP Project Officer at Lough Foyle provides essential advice and support to farmers, especially in the management of spring-sown arable crops and fallow plots on which the lapwing depend.

Without the financial support of agri-environment schemes as administered by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the regular advice and support of ambitious and far-sighted projects such as HELP such farmland conservation initiatives may simply not be viable, and populations of birds such as lapwing, which farmers have successfully managed to provide a lifeline for thanks to these schemes, may once again be threatened with extinction in the province.

The border counties of the Republic of Ireland

HELP operates in the border counties of Donegal, Cavan, Leitrim, Monaghan and Louth and, initially, the main focus was the conservation and management of curlew. The recent decline in curlew is understood to be largely due to loss of habitat through agricultural intensification and in recent years, deterioration of habitats due to land abandonment and high rates of nest predation. HELP has involved both restoration of habitats and predator control.

Between 2011 and 2013, surveying over 10,000 ha of suitable habitat showed just 18 pairs of breeding curlews at 14 sites. Eight pairs were recorded in Donegal, five pairs in Leitrim and two in Monaghan, with a further three pairs located in Mayo. Farmers with breeding curlews on their land were invited to join the Breeding Curlew Grant Scheme. A total of eight farmers entered just under 200ha of land into the scheme, covering five breeding sites and seven pairs in Donegal. The farmers participating in the grant scheme all received training in the protection and enhancement of curlew breeding habitat. Additional habitat works have been carried out at some sites, including tree and scrub clearance to reduce cover for mammalian predators and perches for crows which might predate nests or young chicks. Other works include ditch re-profiling and establishment of a sluice, fencing works, rush clearance and liming.

Due to the lack of curlew sites, the scope of the project was extended in 2012 to include sites important for other breeding waders - lapwing, redshank and snipe. Predator proof fencing was erected at three of the last remaining breeding wader sites in Donegal. 2013, the final year of HELP, will provide a final chance to survey the areas where management work has taken place. Comprehensive recommendations will also be made to government on what is required to protect and enhance breeding wader populations going forward, not just in the project area, but throughout the Republic of Ireland as a whole. 

HELP in the Argyll Islands

HELP in Scotland covers the islands of Mull, Colonsay, Oronsay and Islay.

The project created management agreements at appropriate sites, assisting in expanding the range of choughs onto adjacent areas of Mull. In spite of a significant drop in numbers on Iona in 2013, Mull birds increased to three calling males. Where Mull really stood out was in people engagement; Mull Eagle Watch is a partnership between Forestry Commission Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage, Strathclyde Police, Mull & Iona Community Trust and RSPB Scotland. One of the three Community Information and Tourism Officers (CITOs), part-funded by HELP has directly engaged with an average of 3,500 people every season, offering around 300 guided walks each year. In recognition of the high-calibre of this experience, for the past two years, 2012 and 2013, Eagle Watch has been awarded the top grade of five stars by Visit Scotland.


On Colonsay and Oronsay the focus has been mainly on corncrakes and choughs. Management agreements with farmers and crofters have successfully achieved the habitat conditions required, with the long term aim of encouraging entry to the Rural Development Contract (RDC) system. Access to RDCs is not always easy for small units like crofts, nor on sites with perhaps only one or two qualifying interests; this work would never have happened without the support of HELP.

Grazing and cropping management of our Oronsay nature reserve has increasingly led to high levels of plant diversity. This, perhaps in conjunction with the 2013 summer weather conditions, has led to a remarkable response by the marsh fritillary butterfly with over 1,000 webs (communities of the butterfly caterpillars) and, equally remarkable – although harder to predict – an incredible 160 spikes of rare orchid Irish Ladies Tresses. The Colonsay CITO became an integral part of the island visitors’ experience offering 130 walks or events each year and engaging with 640 people in 2013.

On Islay HELP has been essential in erecting thousands of metres of fencing to target grazing management to benefit chough, particularly on The Oa nature reserve. Island-wide the HELP Project Officer has worked closely with SNH and the Scottish Chough Forum to identify key sites for the provision of nest sites. These have been remarkably successful with an immediate response from breeding birds.

Hundreds of metres of paths have been laid and signs and way-markers installed to guide and inform visitors to these special areas. Also helping to guide and inform has been the Islay CITO, organising regular walks on both reserves (Loch Gruinart and The Oa) and a programme of events, open days, school liaison and Family Fun days. This part of the HELP part-funded a report from Butterfly Conservation looking at butterfly populations across the region, ensuring that the picture for Argyll was much more complete than might otherwise be the case.

Corncrake management agreements were also employed on Islay, meaning that in 2013 against a significant overall decline in corncrake numbers Islay’s population remained the same – a credit to those farmers and crofters taking part. Advice on conservation management, for corncrakes, choughs, butterflies and plants was freely offered across all the islands.

HELP has had an impact on wildlife and humans alike in the Argyll Islands; it is clear that there will be a lasting effect to the benefit of both. Associated management and research will continue and the trails and interpretation will remain to enhance the understanding and enjoyment of both residents of and visitors to these remarkable islands.

Learning from each other

HELP has provided the partners and other stakeholders with the opportunity to learn from experiences and best practice. In 2011 experts in corncrake and chough management visited Rathlin to review and highlight management options that may attract these birds to Rathlin from the Argyll Islands and perhaps Donegal.

In 2012 and 2013 the HELP team visited Donegal, Fermanagh, Oransay and Islay and were able to experience, learn about and discuss different management techniques. These Information Share Visits are invaluable in expanding the boundaries of our knowledge and stimulating new ways of working. 

What next?

We are now entering the final year of the HELP partnership. Advice to farmers, species surveys, habitat management for waders, chough and corncrake will all continue. Efforts to influence future government policy will be expanded and ways and means to continue to deliver all the really positive benefits of HELP for nature and people, post 2014, will continue to be explored.

Gallery

Who to contact

Caroline Marshall
Project Manager (Halting Environmental Loss Project)
E-mail: caroline.marshall@rspb.org.uk

Partners

BirdWatch Ireland

Funding

£1.57 million total project costs, with £1.48 million in grant from the European Regional Development Fund's INTERREG IVA Programme, the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland and the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government in the Republic of Ireland. The shortfall is made up by RSPB Scotland.

This INTERREG IV Programme is delivered by the Special EU programmes Body.

BirdWatch IrelandDepartment of the EnvironmentDepartment of Environment, Heritage and Local GovernmentEuropean Regional Development Fund