Record breaking year for heathland wildlife on RSPB reserves

Katie Phoenix

Wednesday 26 October 2016

One of the UK's rarest reptiles and three nationally important species of bird have reached record breaking numbers on nature reserves across the country thanks to the RSPB's heathland restoration work.

The UK's rarest snake, the smooth snake, slithered its way to success at an RSPB site in Devon this year. One juvenile and two adult snakes were found at the site in June which is the first recorded proof of breeding since being reintroduced to the area in 2009. Prior to the re-introduction - a partnership project led by the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust - smooth snakes had not been recorded in Devon since the 1950s due to loss of its natural heathland habitat. The excellent condition of restored heathland at the site meant it was the perfect habitat for the smooth snake to thrive and the discovery marks a major milestone for the project as it shows the species has re-established itself in the area.

According to the charity's latest reserves survey, Dartford warblers and woodlark have also been recorded in unprecedented numbers this summer, with reserves population increases of 34% and 12% respectively. In addition, numbers of nightjar- an enchanting nocturnal bird with a mystical reputation - reached an all time high of 158 churring male nightjars this year on RSPB reserves. Nightjars are brown, cuckoo-shaped birds that have an almost supernatural reputation with their silent flight and their mythical ability to steal milk from goats.

All three species are dependent on heathland - a rare and threatened habitat which is almost entirely dependent on conservation action for its future. The UK has about 20% of the world's lowland heathland, however this is just a fraction of what once existed as the total area in the UK has shrunk by 80% since 1800.

Jo Gilbert, RSPB's Head of Reserves Ecology, said: "Our heathland is of great importance to a wide variety of special wildlife and home to some of the UK's most weird and wonderful creatures including sand lizards, tiger beetles, silver studded blue butterflies and natterjack toads.

"Sadly, much of our heathland has been lost to forestry, housing development and agriculture and some of the biggest threats now include air pollution and the spread of trees and scrub which smother the heathland plants and puts pressure on the specialised wildlife that relies on this fragile habitat.

"It's excellent news that our habitat restoration work, which often involves the removal of non-native trees, continues to be successful in enabling our precious heathland wildlife to thrive. The species that depend on this habitat have nowhere else to live- if heathland is lost, so is its unique wildlife - therefore the work of conservationists is vital if our rare and fascinating heathland wildlife is to survive."

Great results were seen at the RSPB's Arne reserve in Dorset - home to the BBC's Autumnwatch this week - with numbers of nightjar and Dartford warbler both increasing. Dartford Warblers increased by 30%, with a fantastic 70 pairs recorded breeding on the reserve this year while conditions for nightjar continue to improve, pushing numbers of breeding pairs close to 42 - the most they've ever had recorded on the site.

Highlights also include Dartford warblers breeding for the first time at Farnham (three pairs) and Hazeley Heath (six pairs). And for the second year running, there were a record number of breeding woodlark on a range of sites including Minsmere in Suffolk, Broadwater Warren in Kent and Hazeley Heath in Hampshire.

The RSPB is managing and protecting over 2,500 hectares of lowland heathland and providing a home for the many species that rely on this habitat for survival.

To find an RSPB reserve near you and the amazing wildlife that makes its home there, visit

1. The RSPB is the UK's largest nature conservation charity, inspiring everyone to give nature a home. Together with our partners, we protect threatened birds and wildlife so our towns, coast and countryside will teem with life once again. We play a leading role in BirdLife International, a worldwide partnership of nature conservation organisations.

2. Lowland heathland is usually found on nutrient-poor, acid soils, no higher than 300 m above sea level. Characteristic plants are ling (common heather), bell heather and gorse, and it may include areas of bog and bare ground, which are of great wildlife importance.

3. Species found on lowland heathland (varies from site to site and with season): Dartford warbler, nightjar, stone-curlew, woodlark, heath tiger beetle, natterjack toad, sand lizard, silver-studded blue butterfly, smooth snake, southern damselfly.

Last Updated: Tuesday 28 August 2018

Tagged with: Topic: Reserves