Thursday, 26 November 2015


Can the turtle dove be saved? The RSPB is confident the decline can be reversed. Thse birds were photographed in Israel. (Picture courtesy of Yuvair via Wikimedia Commons) 

THE continuing UK breeding success of bitterns is the achievement of which RSPB’s council chairman, Prof Steve Ormerod, says he is “most proud”.

Speaking at the charity’s 2015 annual meeting in Birmingham last month (October), he described  their progress as “amazing”.

Said Prof Ormerod: “Back in 1997, bitterns were on the brink of extinction.

“So much of their wetland habitat had been lost that just 11 booming males were left.

“But, after our huge wetland recreation projects around the UK, bitterns are now in their greatest numbers for 200 years.

“In 2014, we had 140 booming males, more than half of them on RSPB reserves.”

Prof Ormerod, who is half way through a five-year stint  as chairman of the council, was upbeat about the work of the RSPB and how it is responding to increasing challenges

He pinpointed  the new Medmerry wetland reserve, near Chichester in West Sussex which is now home to breeding black-winged stilts

In  July it also attracted  around 50 starry smoothhound sharks which were filmed feeding on the rising tide.

He continued: “There was an even more historic breeding success in the South West where the cranes that we helped reintroduce fledged the region’s first chicks in over 400 years.

“Our work to restore the blanket bog on our Dove Stone nature reserve in the Peak District has doubled numbers of dunlins, curlews and golden plovers in the last 10 years.

Our reserves in the south east also had a record year for lapwings and redshanks.

“In Wales, where lapwings are now down to just a perilous 400 pairs, our targeted work has resulted in chick numbers exceeding all expectations.

“For example. at Malltreath Marsh, breeding pairs rose by 50 per cent and 88 chicks were fledged.

“In Northern Ireland, too, we’ve worked with 190 farmers to boost wader numbers. Thanks to specially created habitat, numbers of lapwings, snipe and redshanks have increased by two thirds over the last three years.

“Up in Scotland, our Mersehead nature reserve has been identified as one of the most important sites in the country for natterjack toads.“

But Prof Ormerod emphasised that  nature reserves formed   just one part of the RSPB’s  conservation “toolkit” and it was anxious  to create interconnected spaces where plants and animals can move around freely – particularly as climate fluctuation is  constantly changing the habitat of many species.

Among 38 target  areas is a wetland across the Trent and Tame floodplains where, in partnership with the industrial conglomerate, LaFarge, a sand and gravel quarry is being transformed into a wildlife habitat.

“We’ve planted more than 40 hectares of reedbed, where you can see bitterns, short-eared owls and starling murmurations,” said the chairman.

“Elsewhere, the reserve has hobbies, cuckoos, 10 warbler species and sand martins, as well as 18 butterfly species.“

Prof Ormerod  then switched his focus to birds that spend the winter in west and central Africa  - including whinchats, nightingales and spotted flycatchers -  which have declined overall by 70 per cent  since the late 1980s.

“Saving migrant birds is tricky,”he said. “We have to understand all the problems facing them in their summer and wintering grounds, as well as along the length of their flyways.

“But through projects like Operation Turtle Dove, we are confident that we can help turn things around.

Turtle doves are our fastest-declining bird. Their population is halving every six years - and we’ve lost over 95 per cent since 1970.

“In the UK, the main cause is lack of food in farmland when the birds return to breed, so we’ve been working with farmers to help create seed-rich areas to provide an energy boost when the birds need it most.

“National and international projects of this size cannot be done by any one organisation alone.

“It is by working together with like-minded partners that change becomes possible at the scale that nature needs.”

One such partner is  Barratt Developments – the UK’s largest housebuilder

Its  new ‘Hope Community’ in Aylesbury Vale will include 2,450 homes, a school and community facilities, alongside wildflower meadows, hedgehog highways, bird nesting bricks and a 100-hectare nature reserve.

In addition, the RSPB and Barratt have signed an agreement to work nature-friendly principles into all of their developments.

Said the chairman: “This is great news in the current economic climate, when nature is increasingly seen as nice to have but a barrier to development.

“This is not  true - we simply cannot live without it. “

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