Many inspiring projects have been launched by those with a love for the land, aimed at halting biodiversity loss and improving habitats, says Camilla Swift
Camilla Swift meets the conservation heroes launching and running remarkable and inspiring projects – and makes suggestions for how you can do your bit, too.
For more on conservation, learn more about the curlew – a delighted wader and now red-listed species. Read will the curlew cease to call?
Many so-called rewilding enthusiasts and self-styled conservationists put forward the argument that shooting and fieldsports are dirty words. That conservation and fieldsports – and often farming, for that matter – are mutually exclusive, and that the presence of a shoot on an estate or piece of land means that wildlife is neglected. This is, of course, far from the truth. Gamekeepers and farmers know their patches of the countryside better than anyone and, as such, are perfectly placed to know which species might thrive and what improvements could be made to encourage them.
The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) is at the forefront of promoting what it calls ‘working conservation’; that is, working on the basis that wildlife can thrive “if we focus on integrating its conservation with other land uses”.
The GWCT employs more than 60 scientists who conduct research into a wide range of species and ecosystems, from the life cycle of salmon and trout to the impact of pesticides on pollinators and the effect of different forms of cultivation on soil and water health. The charity has also recently launched a new website, workingforwildlife.co.uk, featuring case studies from working conservationists up and down the country. These aren’t people employed as conservation managers but rather, as they put it, “private land managers pioneering wildlife-friendly management in a productive countryside”. The GWCT, in conjunction with Natural England, also developed the concept of ‘Farm Clusters’, which encourage neighbouring farmers to collaborate on conservation schemes, giving them a far greater reach.
But with or without the help of the GWCT, thousands of estates and farms all over the country are conserving nature, improving animal and birdlife habitats, managing their estates to benefit wildlife, and encouraging rare and endangered species to live and breed in the UK. And all that alongside the estate’s regular work and activities, be that shooting, farming, fishing or anything else besides.
In the uplands and moorlands of the UK, conservation and habitat management is at the forefront of many land owners’ and estate managers’ minds. Estates where the moorland is managed for grouse shooting are used to being in the spotlight, constantly defending themselves against claims that moorland management systems have a negative effect on wildlife. In reality, upland estates do huge amounts of conservation work for the long-term benefit of the moor itself, as well as the hundreds of species that live and thrive there.
FOR PEAT’S SAKE
Peatland restoration and preservation has become a hot topic over the past year – including among gardeners. But in the uplands, conserving and restoring peat is no new idea. After all, there is more carbon stored in the UK’s peatlands than in the combined forests of Britain, France and Germany, which makes it vitally important to keep them healthy.
At Abbeystead in Lancashire, surveys showed that 39 hectares of the estate were bare peat. Thanks to extensive peat restoration work, more than 78% of these areas have now been restored.
The Pennine PeatLIFE restoration project is a similar initiative, concerning 3,343 acres of peatland restoration across the North Pennines, including nine privately owned estates. Similar to what was done at Abbeystead, work included the blocking of drains (created after World War II in a bid to dry out the moors and make them more viable for agriculture), as well as restoring eroded gullies and planting moss clumps. Raby is one of the estates involved in the project. It already has a long history of restoring the moorland habitats: 220 miles of drains were blocked on the Raby Estate between 1995 and 2012, with another 98 miles of drains being naturally blocked through management changes.
The Moorland Association (MA) is a keen supporter of the restoration of moorland habitats, as director Amanda Anderson explains: “There are multiple benefits for society when it comes to peatland restoration. Mitigation of climate change, carbon storage, water quality, flood attenuation and biodiversity are all significantly strengthened when we invest money into public goods. The potential for collaboration between landowner and peatland experts is immense.”
Another often controversial topic in the uplands is the presence and protection of birds of prey, something that the MA and its members is closely involved in. Hen harriers are probably the most politically charged bird species in the country, and the Swinton Estate in North Yorkshire is a key player in Natural England’s brood management project, with a number of successful nests. A bird hide has recently been built to allow members of the public to observe these much-loved birds.
Separately, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) has recently agreed to support Natural England with its hen-harrier winter-monitoring scheme [see Field In Focus, February issue]. The £10,000 funding from BASC’s legacy support fund will allow two Natural England field staff to undertake over-winter monitoring activity of hen harriers and land manager engagement in the uplands, following an exceptionally good breeding season.
At the Bolton Estate in Wensleydale (which has featured recently on More4’s The Yorkshire Dales and the Lakes, available to watch online), headkeeper Ian Sleightholm works closely with the British Trust for Ornithology to protect waders and ground-nesting birds. This includes ringing some of the most endangered birds, including curlew, lapwing and merlin, as well as creating manmade ponds that, Sleightholm explains, attract “wildlife in abundance”, including golden plover, curlew, lapwing, rabbits, sheep and gulls, as well as grouse. “When you see a brood of curlew with chicks all side by side, it’s real job satisfaction.” In ‘normal times’, the estate also hosts a biennial Curlew Festival and offers free curlew safaris.
LOWLANDS AND FARMLAND
While many amber- and red-listed birds spend time in the uplands, others choose a lowland or farmland habitat. Take the lapwing, which, although breeding in upland areas, is predominantly a lowland bird, preferring open landscapes, mixed farmland and wetlands. In England and Wales, lapwing numbers have fallen by 80% over the past 80 years, due to a loss of habitat and high levels of predation.
The Bisterne Estate, on the Avon in Hampshire, is attempting to reverse this decline. As well as improving the overall habitat (the estate’s mixture of water meadows, heathland, arable, permanent pasture, mature oak woodland and softwood plantation is perfect for waders), gamekeeper Rupert Brewer practises regular predator control. The estate also coordinates cropping regimes to protect nests and, although it is also a working arable and dairy farm, it has reduced the use of pesticides on headlands and minimised use of the plough. “Recently, I’ve opted for more hedges, as well as nectar and pollen mixes, as I feel we need to do more for insect life,” explains Brewer.
Hedges are a popular method of encouraging birdlife and insect life onto farmland – as well as small mammals such as harvest mice, that nest in well-laid hedges.
Naturally, while people might set out to encourage one species, it makes sense that a habitat that is good for one bird or mammal will be good for others – and provide foodstuff for that species. Wildflowers and hedges are a case in point: wildflowers will support insects and hedgerows support woodland birds that feed on their berries; however, encouraging a rich variety of insects will naturally bring birdlife, too.
Wildflower verges and set-asides are particularly attractive to butterflies, which at the moment need extra help. A study released in January by Butterfly Conservation Europe showed that 8% of UK butterfly species had been lost in the past 45 years, with the butterfly population dropping by half over the same time. There are pockets of success, such as on Kent’s North Downs and, in Surrey, the small blue butterfly has thrived. The large blue butterfly became extinct in the 1970s but, after being reintroduced to the West Country in the 1980s, is now thriving and has recently spread as far as Gloucestershire.
Even Churchill once tried his hand at reintroducing a recently extinct species – well before the concept of ‘rewilding’ became fashionable. In the 1940s, he attempted to reintroduce his favourite butterfly, the black-veined white, at his Kent home of Chartwell. Although he planted butterfly-friendly plants and flowers in the gardens, the reintroduction wasn’t a success and despite releasing hundreds of the insects – which had once been common across the South of England but became extinct here in the 1920s – none survived.
Although rewilding isn’t a new concept, it’s something that has seen a revival in recent years. However, while it’s talk of reviving apex predators such as lynx and wolves that generates the most headlines and can create tension between neighbouring farmers and land users alike, some species – such as recently lost species of invertebrates, birds or amphibians, can prove more popular. In Norfolk, for example, a pioneering breeding programme is attempting to reintroduce the pool frog, which became extinct in the UK in the 1990s and was reintroduced in the 2000s. Spawn is now collected and the tadpoles reared in captivity before being released – thus protecting the spawn and young tadpoles from predation.
In a recent interview, the RSPB’s chief executive, Beccy Speight, spoke about the problems of polarising language and ideas, stating that “the way in which rewilding has sometimes been framed has understandably felt threatening to some farmers”, and proposing that joining together neighbouring farms and RSPB-owned land by removing fences could increase farmland bird populations.
The idea of working together across a number of estates is something that is also causing a stir in the East of England. A project called WildEast has been launched by three local landowners: Olly Birkbeck, Hugh Somerleyton and Argus Hardy, all of whom have been involved in conservation projects on their own farms for a number of years. However, a fact-finding mission across the UK to find out how other people were running conservation and rewilding projects made them think that, “we needed to achieve scale and far beyond what we had been thinking about on our own patches”, as Hardy puts it. Their idea is for a 20% pledge, to encourage everyone, whether they own a 5,000-acre farm, a small patch of garden or even a car park or churchyard, to create space for nature on 20% of their land.
Rewilding is mentioned as playing a part in their plans, but although they argue that WildEast is about “restoring abundance rather than target species”, they believe that reintroductions are a vital part of that process. Their plans revolve around restoring habitats to enable nature to thrive, but when it comes to reintroducing species they talk more about conservation grazers and those that thrive on poor pasture – like Konik and Exmoor ponies. Beavers are one of their target species, too, since they believe they would help with flood management and river quality; but although their belief is that “true wilding” needs predators, they draw the line at lynx. “We don’t see our current landscape as one that would necessarily be able to support a viable lynx population – but a wetter, wilder and woodier one could,” they explain.
The area that WildEast is working with is vast – the trio talk of dedicating 250,000 hectares of East Anglia to nature. But their core aim is to return 20% of the farmed landscape to nature, so they need to get landowners and farmers on side for it to work. But like Speight, WildEast wants “to end this ‘them and us’ mentality”. They want to celebrate the positive stories about conservation projects in East Anglia, and many of these will be on farmland or land managed for shooting. At the same time, perhaps some things might need rethinking. “In the same way that there is a move towards regenerative farming, it feels like the shooting lobby will need to identify what regenerative shooting can mean.”
Of course, it isn’t just land – or air – creatures and habitats that need conserving. Britain’s rivers and waterways are also a vast conservation project. A 2020 report by the Environment Agency revealed that Britain’s lakes, rivers and coastal waters are as polluted as they were four years ago, with only 16% achieving ‘good’ ecological status. Worst of all were Britain’s rivers, with only 14% achieving a ‘good’ status. So what are people doing to help?
In 2019, the Missing Salmon Alliance was created by a group of conservation organisations – including the Angling Trust, the Atlantic Salmon Trust and the GWCT – in a bid to understand the reasons behind, and then reverse, the dramatic decline in the numbers of wild Atlantic salmon in UK waters. The Alliance believes that since the 1970s, large salmon have declined by between 54% and 88%, whilst smaller salmon have declined between 40% and 66%. Local schemes, such as the Moray Firth tracking project, help to monitor spawning and breeding numbers, and there have been some wins. This year, for example, the number of young salmon leaving the River Frome in Dorset to head out to sea was the highest for eight years.
There are other success stories. The Tyne used to be a thriving salmon river but the fish had not been seen in it since the 1950s. However, thanks to a combination of huge improvements in water quality and the creation of the Kielder salmon hatchery by the Environment Agency, it is now one of the best rivers in England and Wales for salmon rod catches. Since the hatchery started 41 years ago, juvenile salmon have been bred and released regularly into local rivers. In 2018, the hatchery stocked the Tyne and its tributaries with 360,000 salmon and 20,000 sea-trout. It is now working to help the local population of freshwater mussels and is breeding them in an artificial stream. The community is hugely involved in the project, with local schools each being given 100 fish eggs, so that pupils can watch the hatching and growing process before helping with the release of the fish into the river.
Another similarly successful project is on the River Wandle in South London. This chalkstream – a tributary of the Thames – was once a favoured fishing haunt of Admiral Nelson. However, in the late 1800s and 1900s the river became hugely polluted, until the Wandle Trust was formed and began organising twice-monthly river clean-ups. Thanks to the clear-ups, vegetation management, river restoration and invasive species management, the water quality became so much better that brown trout, chub and roach all now thrive. In 2004, the Wandle Piscators fishing club was formed, which is committed to helping the river come back to life, as well as encouraging keen local anglers.
Standing water provides key wildlife habitats, too. Ponds are vital for many animals; examples on the GWCT’s Working for Wildlife project include a farmer in Aberdeenshire who dug six ponds, which (as a keen fisherman) he stocked with brown trout. He now sees osprey and a wide range of duck species, including scoter, of which there are only 53 breeding pairs in the whole of the UK, while the adjoining wetlands are home to snipe and amphibians. He has also planted juniper – one of the UK’s three native evergreens and a plant that is becomingly increasingly rare.
Juniper planting and protection is also being done to good effect in the Yorkshire Moors and Dales, where initiatives are in place to collect berries that are then propagated to produce transplants that can be planted back out again. Local primary schools are encouraged to get involved wherever possible, to help with the planting of the young plants and encouraging everyone around to feel involved with conserving the Yorkshire countryside.
Many of these conservation projects are on a large scale but others are far smaller, and there are things that anyone can do to help encourage wildlife. James Bucher explains how on his farm in Knettishall, Suffolk, they plant several strips of wild bird seed mixes, with a focus on small seeds that benefit the smaller birds. These attract impressive flocks of finches and buntings – including goldfinches, chaffinches, linnets, tree sparrows, yellowhammers and reed buntings. Like others, they are restoring and planting hawthorn hedges with native trees mixed in, which draws in species like fieldfares. With swallows and house martins already frequent visitors, Bucher is planning to install swift nesting boxes to encourage them as well, together with an electrical ‘calling’ device, which is designed to attract the birds. These are things that anyone can do, even by planting wildflowers in a small patch of garden, or a bird box on your wall. And why would you want to? “We like to see wildlife on the farm and we are fortunate to have some interesting and endangered species here already, which we wish to encourage,” explains Bucher. “The news for the future environmentally makes grim reading; all landowners should be doing their bit to improve the situation; small areas put aside for wildlife is not a big ask.”
WHAT CAN I DO TO HELP?
Create a large log pile (see above) for all sorts of animals to nest, hibernate and take refuge in.
Create a pond to attract insects, newts, frogs and dragonflies.
If you have a pond – or are installing one – consider putting in duck nest tubes, which offer security and protection for duck nests and boost their fledging success.
Put up nest boxes for small garden birds and migrants, such as house martins and swifts. If you have land, put up owl boxes in buildings or on prominent trees near grassland.
Leave field margins or patches of tussocky grass year-round for voles and amphibians to shelter in.
Plant hedgerows comprised of native flowering and fruiting shrubs, lay existing hedges to maintain bushy structure and trim them in rotation, if possible.
To encourage bees, choose pollinator-friendly flowers for your flowerbeds, and have a ‘wild’ patch of grass for bees to nest in and hibernate.
If your garden has fence boundaries, make a CD-sized hole to give access to hedgehogs – they may forage in up to 30 gardens per night.
Feed garden and farmland birds a mixture of seed types in the colder months, using port feeders or automatic spinner feeders that broadcast onto the ground.
Take part in the Big Farmland Bird Count from 5-14 February. Visit: bfbc.org.uk
Wildfowlers are being encouraged by BASC to take part in the Wetland Bird Survey, which monitors the UK’s migratory waterfowl populations on set Sundays each month. To see if volunteers are needed in your area, visit: bto.org/volunteer-surveys/webs