In the heart of a post-industrial landscape, a burnt-out car lies abandoned. A mixture of young deciduous trees cling to the side of a disused colliery railway embankment. Thick bramble, elder and hawthorn intertwine a mosaic of dense vegetation. This habitat doesn’t scream ‘rich wildlife haven’ but in the North of England, for one of our most talked about, charismatic and threatened species this is one of its last strongholds...

On a bitter, still, November day in the Dearne Valley, myself and Vivien Hartwell (Project Assistant) sit with the sound of a Willow Tit calling. Watching as a small bird darts among the Hawthorn branches, with its small dull black cap and beige notes, the Willow Tit is a subtly beautiful bird, but it is in trouble.
From 70 territories in 2015 to just 21 in 2018, is the Willow tit losing its grip on valuable sites such as RSPB Old moor?

I’ve had an interest in Willow Tits for a while, since hearing about their decline in the UK, so I decided to volunteer and lend a hand on the Willow Tit project in the Dearne Valley. Setting up mist nets to firstly catch Willow Tits was going to have its challenges. The birds can be quite skittish, rarely stopping for long to allow you to get a look at them. They use dense vegetation to travel between and rarely travel across open ground unless desperate. Vivien showed me that she uses specific rides to place the nets – gaps between dense bramble and hawthorn where the birds traverse through their territory. It would then be a matter of keeping out of sight whilst the recording of the Willow Tit call would lure in a curious bird (that’s the idea anyway!). Willow Tits are somewhat savvy and seemed to become accustomed to the recording, tending to fly over the top of the net. On my first day of volunteering we did however catch two yearling birds, one of which was large enough to carry a radio-transmitter tag. The birds were both ringed in case they were caught again or were spotted in a different location.


The small radio tag would then be used over the following days to map the home range of the individual bird.  The window of tracking the bird was often quite short as the birds can sometimes wriggle free of the thin elastic gives. I was able to wander around the reserve with a large antenna listening for the distant bleep of a tagged bird until it became loud enough to get an accurate location.

Every day volunteering has offered up something new, whether catching and ringing the birds or tracking their movements. It has been a privilege being involved on this project, getting out onto nature reserves, sitting quietly in one place you soon start realising how submersed in wildlife you are.
I hope that the information and data gathered can be utilised to halt the decline of such a superb little bird.


Greg Gilmore

Willow Tit Project Volunteer



Would you like to help these incredible species? There are numerous ways in which you can:

  • Why not volunteer for Back from the Brink? Check out our events page for opportunities near you.
  • Help us to spread the word of this species, and the others we will be helping over the next 3 years, by sharing our message across our Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube pages. Follow us: @naturebftb.
  • Finally - help support the work we do across England by donating. Our impact will be greater with your help.


7 thoughts on “An Industrious Bird in a Post-Industrial Land

  1. what size area are those 21 pairs in ?

    Still very healthy population in parts of Co.Durham.
    200 pairs in my home 10km square
    max pop per 1km square holds 10 – 12 pairs
    best densities where fewest Blue & Great Tits.

    1. Hi Steve,

      Wow that is a high density!
      The 21 pairs is within an area of 200km square… sounds pretty pathetic in comparison! However, not all 200km square contains suitable habitat and we have quite high Blue Tit and Great Tit populations in many areas.
      In 2018 (the most recent survey where 21 pairs were recorded), Willow Tits were found in a total of 43 of the 200 squares, all which contained mostly damp or wet habitats.
      We’re hoping to survey the area again this year with volunteers – keep an eye on our social media for updates!

      Best wishes,

      Willow Tit team, BftB.

  2. Hi,
    I’m the volunteer co-ordinator of the Sustrans Wildlife Champion group in Sheffield, aiming to create corridors for wildlife along cycling and walking trails. We are concentrating our efforts on a stretch beside the River Don through Beeley Woods to Oughtibridge and would like to improve the habitat there to encourage Willow Tits by creating nest sites. Please can you advise us?

    1. Hi Polly,

      The Sheffield City Council Ranger team are now undertaking habitat improvement works for the benefit of Willow tits, including installing a number of nest boxes. We’ve consulted with the Back from the Brink project and Sophie has visited some of our Willow tit sites. In addition to Sophie’s input we’d be happy to provide on-site advice as to the suitability for Willow tit nesting sites? It would probably be my colleague who could take this forwards (as you’re based in the North of the city and I cover the South for Willow tits) but please feel free to drop me an email initially?

    2. Hi Polly,

      I’m part of the Sheffield City Council Ranger team that are actively undertaking habitat improvement for Willow tit as well as installing Willow tit nest boxes. We’ve been in close consultation wit the BftB project and indeed Sophie has visited a number of our sites. In addition to Sophie’s invaluable input I’m sure my team would be more than happy to visit your site and assist in establishing the suitability for Willow tits? My colleague Chris has responsibility for Willow tits in the North of the city but Please feel free to contact me in the first instance?



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