Chris Corrigan, Director RSPB England, writes about birthdays, launches, awards and records broken in a remarkable year for conservation in England.
A very happy anniversary
On the Staffordshire-Warwickshire border, Middleton Lakes celebrated its 10th anniversary as an RSPB reserve with some new recruits on the hoof.
Konik ponies were brought in to graze Jubilee Wetlands into good condition for wading birds, such as lapwings, redshanks and avocets. Little egrets duly marked the birthday by nesting there for the first time.
The Manchester peregrine project also registered 10 years going strong, with a pair once more performing aerial acrobatics to an admiring public.
East of Manchester, Dove Stone scooped a major EU conservation award. Our work with United Utilities to restore nature's home in this dramatic Peak District landscape was rewarded by being voted winner of the Conservation category in this year's Natura 2000 Awards.
These two RSPB reserves are the first in England to benefit from a special international award recognising the high quality of their starry night skies. Both reserves lie within the South Downs National Park, which was awarded International Dark Sky Reserve status.
It is the second location in England and only the 11th in the world to be recognised by the International Dark-Sky Association. On clear nights, visitors to Pulborough Brooks might see owls, moths and rare bats, but also the Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy with the naked eye.
Transforming habitats in the East
Two relatively new reserves in East Anglia reported outstanding breeding results in 2016.
The Hanson-RSPB Wetland Project (or "Ouse Fen" as completed areas of the nature reserve are known) is a national flagship project and is now halfway through its 30-year development.
This incredible landscape is being transformed from a working quarry into 700 hectares (ha) of wildlife-rich wetland habitat, which when complete will include Britain's biggest reedbed and 32km of paths. The reserve now covers 218ha and the project has smashed its species targets with 24 pairs of bearded tits, 10 booming bitterns and six marsh harrier nests.
In Essex, the Wallasea Island Wild Coast Project is a partnership between the RSPB and Crossrail. Following on from the creation of the 165ha Jubilee Marsh, we have now created a further 40ha complex of saline lagoons and a saltpan. This sits within 80ha of grazing marsh surrounded by a 4km partially-submerged predator fence within a new, wide and very deep ditch.
Our new habitats attracted 101 breeding pairs of avocets, and with another 260ha of lagoons planned we expect Wallasea will soon have the largest number of breeding avocets anywhere in the UK.
Seabirds bounce back
In the last year we've seen successes in our work to restore seabird populations in the South West. Seventy-three pairs of Manx shearwaters were recorded breeding on St Agnes and Gugh, in the Isles of Scilly, up from 22 before the removal of rats.
Puffins have also bounced back on Lundy Island, off the Devon coast, thanks to rat removal, with 300 birds recorded – an increase of 295 birds in 10 years.
Down on Chesil Beach in Dorset a record 39 little tern pairs nested, raising 71 chicks, thanks to our partnership project to protect them.
There were other notable species successes in 2016.
It was the most successful year for choughs in Cornwall since their return in 2001, with 23 young fledged; 23 pairs of cranes made 18 nesting attempts in Somerset (out of 48 pairs across the UK); and there were 162 booming bitterns across the UK, including 19 at RSPB Ham Wall.
In the north-west, an unprecedented 60 avocets fledged at Marshside, while in Cumbria, butterflies gave us cause to cheer. Campfield Marsh saw the first known natural re-colonisation of marsh fritillary butterflies anywhere in England, after they spread successfully from a neighbouring reintroduction site.
Campfield Marsh is the only RSPB reserve in England hosting this beautiful butterfly.
Connecting people to nature
We had many exceptional public engagement activities both on and off reserves last year.
Arne was the venue for the BBC's Autumnwatch and Winterwatch for the first time and record numbers of visitors flocked to see the reserve's wonderful wildlife for themselves.
By contrast, Coquet Island on the Northumberland coast has no visitors at all; it's strictly off limits while 44,000 seabirds nest there, including the UK's rarest nesting seabird – the roseate tern. However, if you can't take the people to the island, you can take the island to the people. We transported the old night hide (which provided shelter for the night watch, who guard the sleeping birds from egg collectors) to Tyneside's famous Baltic Centre for Contemporary Arts.
Here we ran a live video feed of the seabird colony and thousands of passers-by enjoyed the action, as well as 250 school pupils and more than 1,500 kids who attended a creative conservation week event. For those not able to attend these events, we showed live footage of the seabird action on our website, which was viewed 91,000 times.
Over in Oxford, our Swift City project began in January 2017, following a successful bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund. The two-year partnership project aims to combat a decline in swift numbers by increasing the number of nesting sites and food sources across Oxford.
Local residents are being asked to improve prospects for the birds by installing nestboxes and planting wild flower plots. As part of the project we ran a competition to design a new "Swift Tower" – a free-standing structure which provides nesting sites for swifts. We hope that the winning design will soon join the city’s dreaming spires, providing valuable new homes for these incredible birds.
Ups and downs
The year began and ended showing two facets of our relationship with Natural England, the Government's conservation body. It started with a challenge, as the European Commission commenced legal proceedings against the Government for breaches of the Habitats Directive.
Quite simply, our research and analysis showed that decisions made by Natural England to allow the burning of blanket bog on five Special Areas of Conservation in northern England (including Walshaw Moor) were wrong on a number of grounds and would lead to the deterioration of some 73,000ha of peatlands. Our view was backed by the Commission.
Then, at the end of the financial year came news of collaboration and support. A Heritage Lottery Grant of £4.6 million has enabled us to start a joint project to improve the fortunes of some of England's most threatened species.
The Back from the Brink project is led by Natural England and includes the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, Buglife, Plantlife, Butterfly Conservation, the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust, the Bat Conservation Trust and ourselves.
Prior to this project, Natural England and its predecessors have given us long-standing support – funding work for corn buntings and stone-curlews as part of the Action For Birds In England project for more than 10 years, for example.
However, this latest bold initiative does not simply set out to conserve the highest priority threatened species. It also aims to reach out to the public, so that ordinary people can discover, value and take action for nature.
The initiative will be supporting 19 projects, targeting habitats such as Dorset heaths, Cotswold limestone grassland, Lancashire dunes and Yorkshire Wolds farmland. Struggling wildlife, including little whirlpool ramshorn snails, narrow-headed ants, pine martens, shrill carder bees and willow tits will also be given special attention.
A film festival, community arts project, behind the scenes tours and volunteer mentoring will also help us to support the wildlife that is most in need of our help.