The Project Officer works with 150 farmers who manage roughly 25 square kilometres 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 that time, rush cutting has increased from 1 to 5 square kilometres, 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 which 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.
By late February, lapwings began to return to traditional sites, with the first returning curlew seen on 5 March 2014. Since HELP began, more than 200 visits have been made to more than 65 farms, 4 square kilometres 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.
Each spring, 23 square kilometres 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.
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.
Over the past few years 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, the 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 which contain extremely rare and endangered plants, such as the iconic Irish Lady’s Tresses Orchid.
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.
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 more than 100 square kilometres 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 two square kilometres 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.
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 more than 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 the picture for Argyll was much more complete than might otherwise be the case.
Corncrake management agreements were also employed on Islay, meaning 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 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.
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, will continue to be explored.