Battling to boost bird populations - The Heart of England Forest

Skylark in flight

We are a nation of bird lovers and have been monitoring their populations for many years. Bird populations can provide us with a good indication of how well our wildlife is doing in the UK as they are found in a wide range of habitats. Actual numbers of birds for each species cannot be accurately measured but it is possible to assess their status by calculating rates of change over time, as part of national monitoring schemes.

By assessing these rates of change it’s a sad fact that the UK’s bird populations have been found to be in slow decline, but here at the Heart of England Forest ensuring a happy home for our feathered friends is one of our top priorities.

Which species are at risk?

Monitoring of our native birds by the government’s Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) shows that the overall bird species index statistics are a cause for concern. In the 45 years since 1970, woodland birds have declined by as much as 23% and farmland birds by 56%. Much of the decline occurred in the 1970s and 80s. Meanwhile water and wetland birds have suffered an 8% drop since 1975.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has identified that up to 21 per cent of the UK’s 246 species of bird, are now on their ‘Red List’, meaning that their very existence is under serious threat. Some surprising names, such as tree sparrows (down 95%), turtle doves (down 71%), bullfinches (down 53%) and cuckoos (down 33%) are on the list. However, the Heart of England Forest team is doing its level best to ensure species such as these, and many others on the list, are made welcome in the wide range of wildlife habitats and farmland under our management in the Forest.

Why is the decline happening?

The primary reasons for the decline in the number of UK bird species lie in changing agricultural practices; the requirement for larger fields has meant the disappearance of important habitats such as hedgerows, and these fields are often ploughed very close to their edges to maximise production, again removing tall grasses and herbs and the birds’ food sources. Wetland areas have been drained to increase available farmland and quick turnover of cropping land has mean that it does not have the chance to lie fallow and encourage bird habitation. Add to this the growing use of chemicals in pesticides and fertilisers, and the replacement of old farm buildings with modern ones thus reducing popular nesting sites, and it is clear that the UK’s birdlife is in a battle for survival.

How are we helping?

Of course, our main aim is to create new woodland, and with it to replace some of the habitats that have been lost elsewhere in recent years. In addition, we are committed to enhancing and conserving existing wildlife habitats within the Forest including our wetland areas and grassland.

Is it working?

While the fight for birdlife is always ongoing, there is evidence that the Heart of England Forest is providing valuable habitats for a variety of ‘Red List’ birds. A recent survey showed, for example, that a small flock of endangered lapwing have been spotted over our Dorsington land, while two pairs were spotted displaying near our Honeybourne woodland. A flock of another ‘Red Lister’- the golden plover – has also been noted over Dorsington. Meanwhile, that most evocative of birds, and one that has shown a marked decline across the rest of the country in recent years, the skylark, has become a familiar sight over the wide rides within the Heart of England Forest tree plantations. The marsh tit has been observed in increasing numbers around the Spernal area of the Forest, while once-thriving species such as yellowhammer, song thrush, fieldfares, redwings and lesser redpolls are all showing signs of finding a happy home in the Forest.

It is evident that careful management and sympathetic farming are beginning to pay dividends, and the Heart of England Forest is playing a major part in reversing the decline in British bird species – ensuring that some of the UK’s most beloved residents can fight back and flourish once again.

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