Saving England's most threatened species from extinction





ARC's Gems in the Dune Project Manager, Fiona Sunners tells us more about one of the projects key species, the often overlooked, tiny and very rare Sea Bryum.

Down beneath your feet, often unnoticed are some of the rarest species in the country! Sea Bryum is one of them – a member of the bryophyte family; it enjoys the open sandy conditions of newly forming sand dunes. Unfortunately, the amount of this habitat is reducing; as a result of this numbers are declining too.

In 2013, a survey found Sea Bryum along a 2.5km stretch of the ‘green beach’ between Ainsdale and Birkdale, however as the newly formed dunes and pools become more vegetated and fixed, conditions change and become more unsuitable meaning these tiny plants are out-competed. During the Gems in the Dunes project we have been working with volunteers to get a better picture of how widespread they actually are. So far we have found Sea Bryum is now confined to a 370m stretch at the southern end of the ‘green beach’, and even over the short time the project has been running we have seen increasing amounts of vegetation pushing them southwards and reducing their range. Careful future management could help them, for example scraping off the top layer of dense vegetation can open the landscape up enough to allow them to recolonise from spores that have lain buried in the sand. Volunteers observed this in an area that was scraped before the project started. The scraped areas can also benefit other species such as the Natterjack Toads.

It’s not all doom and gloom though as this year we have recorded Sea Bryum at the southern end of the ‘green beach’, in an area that last year was pretty much still the beach. Spores have obviously been blown southwards landing in this more suitable habitat, and made the most of the open damp conditions. We have also recorded an expanse of them around one of the Natterjack breeding pools, slightly inland of the ‘green beach’ – watch out they are spreading!

The only other place on the coast they are found is at Devil’s Hole in Formby. Here a small colony remains, although as the vegetation increases here too, we could very well see it disappear very soon.

Sea Bryum is not the easiest to identify, but a few key features do distinguish it from the other bryums on the coast – take a look at our species identification sheets.

We have also been on the lookout for another bryum species - however this is proving to be a bit of a tall order! All we have to go on is the last record from way back in 1933, which was in Freshfield and doesn’t even pin point the sand dunes! If you fancy having a look for Bryum Calophyllum, take a look at our species guide for its key feature.

If you think you have spotted either of our bryums, get on your hands and knees and take a picture and send it with a grid reference or screenshot of your location to  Make sure your photos are as clear as possible as this will help us to identify it!


Fiona Sunners - Project Officer

Gems in the Dunes


 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.

An encouraging update from our Barberry Carpet Moth project officer on planting new Barberry Plants -

Well the final planting season of the project is well underway and the plants are quickly running out now!  I managed to squeeze in some planting in Dorset with volunteers before lockdown, and have had to cancel my planned volunteer events in Wiltshire sadly.  But I have been able to continue with my deliveries to landowners at least, and there are now another 789 plants in their new homes.

We have smashed our original planting target of 3000 plants over the 4 years, and are nearly at 4000 now.   Not all of these plants will have made it of course – we have had some serious droughts to contend with in the last few years for a start.  Plus we had a spate of rabbits digging out young plants which definitely didn’t help matters!!  So this year, I put as much of our remaining project budget as possible into purchasing extra plants for the project, as well as decent protection in the form of chestnut stakes and mesh shrub shelters.  I have another 350 plants to home and lots of locations lined up, plus I am very much hoping I can get back out with volunteers to do the planting once it is safe to do so.

Over the course of the project we have planted on nature reserves, in hedgerows on pasture, and lots of people have taken Barberry for their own gardens and land.  We needed to avoid arable land due to the historic issues with stem rust, and at first I thought this would be a real challenge in such an arable landscape.  However, I have been lucky enough to find some extremely supportive volunteers that have taken plants for their own land, as well as put me in touch with their friends and neighbours.

Some of the locations have been young woodlands that people are planting up for wildlife too, and Barberry is now planted on path edges and in glades.   Some of the locations in Wiltshire and Gloucestershire seem to have been extremely grand, with Highgrove House being an obvious example.  Some of the Manor houses seem to me to be quite appropriate, where Barberry is being planted in orchards again.

Charlton Park was a joy to visit recently – I have been in the past several times when I’ve been to Womad music festival, and it’s great to know that in the future they will have lots of fabulous Barberry plants in their extensive arboretum area.


Fiona Haynes

Moth Conservation Officer - Back from the Brink


 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.

I finished my book Framing Nature – conservation and culture in the early days of the first lockdown, and spent the following weeks inhabiting two and a half acres – or 0.000000002% – of the Earth’s surface. It became a world within a world, and I found within it an infinity of other worlds.

The weather was good, and if it wasn’t one of the three days I spent each week working for Back for the Brink (and sometimes even when it was), I took to carting a makeshift desk across two fields so that I might work at the edge of a small wood. On a ‘Brink’ day, it is a place to escape the internet for a while and concentrate on some report or other. On a writing day, it can be a place to spend an hour perfecting a sentence, or a minute writing half a page. Once the book was finished, with no new project in the offing, I sometimes just sat and wrote of whatever transpired, in real time:

A small spider has appeared on my desk. It is an agile jumper and intricately patterned: each leg is covered in white hairs and finely flecked dark brown; its two palps are purer white contrasting with two coal-black, forward-facing eyes and its shiny black head on which is emblazoned a white anchor-mark. Its abdomen is shaped somewhat like an egg, milk chocolate in colour with three lateral white hoops. I have no idea of its identity.

The afternoon sun has highlighted a small sycamore tree that is about fifteen yards away. At its upper right-hand edge there seems to be a delicate mist that, on closer inspection comprises a socially-distanced swarm of dancing insects. They mesmerise me with their buoyant hovering, each describing looped curves that extend about four inches vertically, and swaying laterally with and against the breeze. They hold their very long, delicate, white antennae curved forwards. Collectively they give the impression of a vague and uncoordinated milling, but at a higher resolution, I see they are evenly spaced, seeming to respond to leaf, light and each other according to an algorithm that only they can compute. They look black, but I notice that their wings are iridescent, flashing bright green at certain angles to the sun. They are male green longhorn moths, assembled for their afternoon lek, to try to coax a female into their grasp.

The spider, by the way, is Salticus scenicus, the zebra-back jumping spider. The time it took me to write another paragraph was the time it took Twitter to improve the sum of my arachnological knowledge by a considerable percentage, albeit by the smallest grain in absolute terms.

This combination of fascination and ignorance is one reason why I write, and especially why I have been writing about invertebrates lately. As an ecologist and career conservationist I have never not appreciated their importance. Nor, in the six decades since I took my first steps, have I failed to appreciate the exquisite beauty in each one I encounter, in all their seemingly infinite variety. But I have never become an entomologist in the usual sense, that is, I don’t know much about them and can name very few.

Embedded in Back from the Brink is a kind of unspoken ethic – that alongside the traditionally charismatic targets of species conservation, the avocets and beavers, red squirrels and swallowtails, there must be an equal place for the small, lesser-loved things. Two Back from the Brink invertebrates crossed over into the other half of my life and became subjects for Framing Nature: the field cricket and the narrow-headed ant. They joined a third ‘Brink’ species, the willow tit, which sometimes calls from the trees around my outdoor office.

From the north east corner of the churchyard of St. Mary’s, Selborne, an old, wooden kissing gate leads out of the village down the steep slope of the Glebe Field. From there, Gilbert White, whose 300th birthday we celebrate this year, would have had a short walk from the church to the fields where he studied field crickets, the first person to do so. Last year I walked the same path, following in his footsteps by way of homage, although the crickets are now long gone.

Gilbert White’s own essay on the field cricket takes the form of a letter, written in 1779 to his fellow naturalist Daines Barrington. It opens with Virgil’s words resonant arbusta – the heathland resounds. It was a reference to the crickets’ stridulations – a resonant percussion-song that permeates the warm, scented night. As White explained to Barrington,

Sounds do not always give us pleasure according to their sweetness and melody; nor do harsh sounds always displease. We are more apt to be captivated or disgusted with the associations which they promote, than with the notes themselves. Thus the shrilling of the field-cricket, though sharp and stridulous, yet marvellously delights some hearers, filling their minds with a train of summer ideas of everything that is rural, verdurous, and joyous.

The song of the field cricket once resounded across the heaths and dry grasslands of Surrey, Sussex, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, before falling silent from the summer night air everywhere, except in one last place in West Sussex, where fewer than a hundred individuals survived into the 1990s.

At the RSPB’s Farnham Heath reserve in Surrey, a reintroduction programme there saw the population grow to more than 300 individuals by 2016. However, the field cricket remained vulnerable. With Back from the Brink funding, the RSPB set out to increase the robustness of the population by translocating crickets within Farnham Heath itself. I joined about twenty other volunteers to help capture six to eight male and six to eight female crickets between us, the number specified on the specially-obtained license.

The earlier reintroduction had seen crickets spread from the far edge of the southern half of the heath north-eastwards onto more recently restored areas, and it was clear that they were capable of walking 200-300 yards in a season – in a lifetime, in other words. Having found the six males and six females we had come for, they were destined to be released to colonise the northern portion of the reserve, which they would be unlikely to reach unaided from the wrong side of a busy road. Surveys in 2020 have confirmed the success of the project, and that they have colonised neighbouring private land too.

At 1.11pm on 26 November 2018 the narrow-headed ant returned to Bovey Heathfield nature reserve after an absence of fourteen years. Buglife’s Stephen Carroll, who had painstakingly translocated a colony from nearby Chudleigh Knighton heath, marked the time precisely, so personal was its significance.  He had for years been one of a very few people to concern themselves with the fate of this little-known species.

I made two visits to the Devon heaths and the narrow-headed ants, accompanied by Stephen and freelance entomologist John Walters. After a few minutes eavesdropping on the conversation of enthusiasts, I was hooked. As I squatted to watch the ants at close quarters, I was soon imagining myself a visitor in their Lilliput:

Their hyper-crowded, three-dimensional cities are something out of Blade Runner, chiaroscuro worlds that never sleep, where vast armies are genetically programmed to perform endless menial tasks for the common good. There will be ants climbing to the uppermost reaches of the nest to absorb solar energy at its under-surface and returning to transfer the heat of their own bodies through the labyrinth, a living hypocaust. Others ferry their sibling pupae through the writhing tangle of vegetation, detritus and co-workers, forever up and down between storeys, constantly monitoring and regulating temperature in the brood.

A brief, narrow, slanting shaft of sunlight pierced the overcast of cloud that had kept the heath’s colours muted. I imagined those few seconds of increased warmth and enriched light and their effect on the microworld beneath. Each few photons energise in a birch leaf the synthesis of vital sugars. It is an industrial complex: from point of manufacture, the sugar is transported under pressure in pipelines built into the tree’s structure. Aphids tap the supply-lines and siphon off a percentage. The ants tend the aphids, taking their own cut in the form of honeydew, in return for protecting the aphids from ladybirds and other predators. Replete, the ants return to their nests.

Inside, at the heart of the citadel, resides the queen, the oldest and most venerated member of ant society. The colony is organised around her needs alone, thousands of loyal subjects programmed to protect, feed and pamper her, their roles and responsibilities passed down through short-lived generations while she lives on for decades. One narrow-headed ant queen was known to have lived for 27 years, I could hear John saying.

  • from Framing Nature: conservation and culture

At some point that day, having acquired a new enthusiasm of my own, I realised why I had changed my mind about retiring once Back from the Brink got started. The plan had been to finish the funding application, help appoint a team to manage the programme, say my farewells and get writing. But perhaps I could manage another four years, or, thanks to Covid, five….


Laurence Rose

Change Manager - Back from the Brink


 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.

One of the most important microhabitats of ancient and veteran trees are the rot holes and cavities used by everything from barn owls and bats roosting in the hollows to rare beetles burrowing through the fungi-infested dead wood.

Rot holes form when heart-rot fungi begin to decompose the heartwood at the centre of the tree. The initial decay softens the wood and allows insects like beetles and other species such as woodpeckers to excavate. Over time a succession of invertebrates and fungi break down the wood to form a hollow. The bottom of the cavity fills with wood-mould, a rich mulch similar to soil, that provides a stable environment for generations. In long-living trees like beech, oak and lime, cavities and their wood mould build up over hundreds of years.

The way we’ve managed trees and forests over the last 200 years has meant veteran and ancient trees are now scarce in the landscape. The move away from traditional forest management practices of pollarding and coppicing towards plantation forestry and whole tree extraction, the intensification of the farmland with its removal of hedgerows and boundary trees and a risk averse culture to tree ageing have all played their part in the loss of our old trees and the species they support.

This is a problem for the tree-cavity community. Heart-rot fungi are rarely able to move in before the trees are mature, as much as 120 years in beech and 180 years in oak and you can add another 50 years before for a cavity to form large enough for honeybee nest. Trees planted today won’t have a thriving community of beetles burrowing through the wood mould for another 200 years!

As our veteran trees gradually die of old age, disease or human intervention, there isn’t a cohort ready to replace them. There just aren’t enough trees growing to a ripe old age where cavities begin to form.

We now recognise the value of old trees and the issue associated with their loss. Good tree management will keep some to become veterans of the future. This is amazing progress, but we still need to bridge the gap between in cavity development between our hollow-bearing old trees the ones set to replace them.

One method we are trialling is to artificially inoculate trees with heart-rot fungi to initiate decay much earlier than it would usually occur. The process is straightforward – colonise wood blocks with the fungi > cut a hole in the tree  > leave the tissues to dry out a little > insert the colonised block > leave for a couple of years and see if we have been successful by re-isolating the fungi from the tree.

Colonise wood blocks with fungi

Leave the tissues to dry out a little

Insert the colonised block

📷Matt Wainhouse


The method is not new and has a long pedigree in North America where artificial inoculation has been used successfully for creating the heart-rot conditions that woodpeckers need to excavate their nest cavities. It’s too early to tell whether our heart-rot inoculations will be successful here in the UK. Different trees, fungi and climate will all have an impact and we lack very basic knowledge about the ecology of the fungi. If it does work, this remarkably cheap and simple conservation action could be rolled to help to bridge the temporal gap in cavity habitat.

Additional Information - Inoculating wood-decay fungi into living trees for habitat creation and species reintroduction: Developing a conservation tool


Matt Wainhouse

PHD student at Cardiff University


 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.

The People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) had a fantastic response to the 2020 Great Stag Hunt, with more than double the usual number of records submitted. The Back from the Brink Ancients of the Future project was delighted to support the Stag beetle (Lucanus cervus) citizen science campaign enabling PTES to reach a much wider audience.

The highest ever number of sightings

There were 16,766 Stag beetle records submitted (as of 30/9/20) to the Great Stag Hunt. This far surpasses any other year that PTES have run the survey. Once verified, there were 14,281 Stag beetle records where one, or more adult or larval beetles were seen. Of the 18,805 adults recorded, 7,754 were female and 10,048 were male (1,003 were unknown). There were 1,224 larvae recorded.

Great Stag Hunt records 2020 © The People’s Trust for Endangered Species

New sites

There were several new sites for Stag beetles including two of particular note as they are on the edge of the range. 1) Starcross in Devon and 2) Long Stratton in Norfolk. Female Stag beetles are quite picky and prefer light soils that are easier to dig down into and also areas with the highest average air temperatures and lowest rainfall throughout the year. Therefore, it is exciting that Stag beetles have been found in different sites around the country.

Appreciation of the natural world

There have been numerous new articles reporting how the UK lockdown increased our engagement with the environment. Of course, some citizen science surveys were impossible for people to take part in during the first lockdown due to the travel restrictions to monitoring sites. However, surveys such as the Great Stag Hunt were accessible to a greater number of people taking more of an interest in the outdoors and their gardens. This may well have contributed to this year’s rise in Stag beetle reported sightings and it is a positive sign of growing interest in and appreciation of the natural world.

To view the Stag beetle gallery and for more information visit the PTES website:


The People’s Trust for Endangered Species and
The Ancients of the Future Project


 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.

Anyone who doesn’t have at least some degree of admiration for the feat of bird migration either isn’t aware of the challenges involved or must lack any sense of wonder and imagination. A new wave of sightings of black-tailed godwits from outside the UK have just flooded in to the team at Project Godwit. For me, receiving these sightings and learning more about the life histories of these incredible migratory wading birds is the best part of the job.

Black-tailed godwits which breed in the UK are of the Limosa limosa limosa sub-species and mainly breed in the East Anglian Fens of Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, plus a few sites in the south-east and north-west of England. A small number of the sub-species L. l. islandica also breed in Orkney and Shetland.

While L. l. islandica winters in Iceland, black-tailed godwits of the L. l. limosa race migrate south to Spain, Portugal or West Africa - to countries like Senegal, Mauritania and Guinea, 2800 miles away.

Black-tailed godwit (L. l. limosa) at RSPB Ouse Washes, Cambridgeshire (Photo: Jonathan Taylor).

Black-tailed godwits use ‘staging areas’ (stop-over sites) on their migration route to rest and feed, in places such as the crucially important Tagus estuary in Portugal, which connects breeding sites across the northern hemisphere to wintering areas in Africa. It’s not just godwits from the UK that come here – Icelandic black-tailed godwits, plus godwits from the Netherlands (where the majority of the north-west European population breed) also gather here. Around 300,000 waterbirds of a plethora of migratory species including 80,000 black-tailed godwits stop here to regain energy and forage on the rice fields and mudflats of the Tagus estuary.

The Tagus estuary is designated as a Special Protection Area (SPA), a Wetland of International Importance (Ramsar site) and an Important Bird Area (IBA). Despite the vital importance of the area for biodiversity, the Tagus estuary is threatened with the development of an airport for Lisbon. This is another risk this species with its Near Threatened global status can really do without, especially when the UK population is already so small and vulnerable, not to mention the multitude of other reasons this airport should not be built.

Amongst some of the godwit sightings recently to have arrived in the team’s inbox is that of a female godwit reported from the Tagus estuary by Hugo Areal. This female was ringed as a chick at RSPB Nene Washes nature reserve, Cambridgeshire (the stronghold for the UK breeding population) an amazing 19 years ago and was spotted in what would be a part of the airport experiencing the highest levels of noise pollution and disruption if it goes ahead. This godwit has been seen regularly at the Tagus estuary over the years, in autumn and spring.

This female was observed breeding at the Nene Washes again this year. There have also been multiple sightings of this bird on the north Norfolk coast, at reserves like RSPB Titchwell and Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Cley Marshes in late summer/early autumn, feeding up before migrating south.

Birds ringed by Project Godwit have a lime colour ring on the right leg stamped with the letter 'E' and can be reported to the team here.

One muddy godwit - bearing the Project Godwit colour-marking scheme of a lime green ring on the right leg with a black 'E' (caked in mud here). The green flag attached to one of the left rings is a geolocator to track movement on migration (Photo: Hugo Areal).

How Project Godwit’s colour rings look when clean - a lime green ring on the right leg with a black 'E' (Photo: RSPB).

One-year-old female godwit ‘Sky’ was reported at a national nature reserve near Yves in Western France in September by Jérémy Dupuy. Sky was head-started as a chick at WWT Welney Wetland Centre in June 2019 and released at the Nene Washes. This is the first observation of Sky since her release in well over a year - fingers crossed she will return to the UK next year to breed in the Fens.

Sky as a chick in June 2019 at WWT Welney (Photo: WWT).

What is head-starting? It involves collecting eggs from a wild population, hatching them in incubators and rearing the chicks in specialised pens before release back into the wild population at fledging age (around two weeks old for godwits), to get them through the vulnerable egg and chick stages. By collecting the eggs early enough in the breeding season, the breeding pair is likely to lay another clutch for rearing themselves in the wild.

With only around 50 breeding pairs left in the East of England, head-starting is undertaken to help boost the population and try to avoid the UK losing them as a breeding species. During this five-year project which launched in 2017, 112 head-started godwits have been released to date, which on average has increased the productivity of the population by over 300%.

Project Godwit is a partnership project between the RSPB and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) and it’s our colleagues at WWT who have the specialised expertise and experience in aviculture to deliver the head-starting conservation work. Head-starting is one of many elements to Project Godwit – creating and managing suitable wet grassland habitat, research and monitoring, plus community engagement also comprise the project’s objectives.

Head-started birds have been reported in 10 countries along the species’ migration flyway, including Portugal, Spain, France, Belgium, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Morocco, Senegal and Mauritania. Head-started godwits are also breeding in the UK, pairing with ‘wild-reared’ adults as well as with other head-started birds.

To date, head-started godwits have been reported from 10 different countries.

A male black-tailed godwit was spotted in September in the Algarve, Portugal - ringed as a chick at the Nene Washes in 2003. This godwit breeds at the Nene Washes every spring and was seen with its partner and chicks in May this year by a member of the team. Thanks to Dr José Tavares for reporting this sighting to Project Godwit.

Another one-year-old godwit head-started in 2019 has just been reported this week from Senegal, in Djoudj National Park near Debi. The female known as ‘Rainbow’ was last spotted in Senegal in October 2019, therefore she may have stayed on the wintering grounds this whole time. This behaviour is common for juvenile godwits, whereby they often don’t return to the UK breeding grounds until the age of two years.

Rainbow at WWT Welney in June 2019, before release as a head-started chick (Photo: WWT).

Project Godwit and all our colleagues working to protect godwits are indebted to all who go to the trouble of reporting colour ring sightings. These volunteer recorders are making a significant contribution to conservation science, helping us better understand the movements of these migratory waders all along the migration flyway.


by Rebecca Pitman, Senior Project Manager for Project Godwit
Back from the Brink


Project Godwit is a five-year partnership project between the RSPB and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust with major funding from the EU LIFE Nature Programme, HSBC 150th Anniversary Fund, Natural England, the National Lottery Heritage Fund through the Back from the Brink Programme, Leica and the Montague-Panton Animal Welfare Trust.


Colouring in the margins: Discovering the arable habitat and resources to help

Colour in the Margins is a Back from the Brink project running since 2018. Led by Plantlife in partnership with the RSPB it has been working to secure the future of some of our rarest arable species. The project has targeted the conservation of 13 key species: ten plants and three ground beetles that rely on the farmed environment.

Arable farmland (land that has been cultivated or prepared for growing crops) is vital for the wildflowers and animals that have co-existed with us since the dawn of agriculture – and you may or may not know, that arable plants are the fastest declining suite of plants in the UK. Many species that were once widespread across the UK’s arable farmland are now restricted to localised patches. With the intensification of farming practices, changes in agricultural land use to more pastoral farming systems and development pressure around urban areas, we have lost important arable habitat and seen the decline of many species which depend on it.

(c) Cath Shellswell

By making room for wildlife within the margins of our productive land will reward us with a rich patchwork that is buzzing with life. By nurturing land for arable plants we can create areas teeming with pollinators which will in turn increase crop production and provide a reservoir of invertebrates that could facilitate integrated pest control. Sensitively managed arable land can provide a vital food source for small mammals, bats and beetles as well as important nesting habitat for many declining farmland birds. If we can create and secure habitat for species that live on arable farmland, we can make a real difference to their conservation on a global scale.

(c) Ben Andrew

The project has been working with landowners and farmers to improve the way in which this land is managed, as well as members of the public to enthuse and inspire them to care of this habitat. We have worked with over 130 farms and sites in Devon, Cornwall, Kent, Somerset and Wiltshire to help secure the future of some rare species – from changing management to reintroducing species to suitable areas. Some of our successes include reintroduction of Small-flowered Catchfly, Pheasant Eye and Corn Buttercup.

(c) Cath Shellswell

So, have you ever gone for walk on a footpath or through a field near you, looked at some of the plants that line the path and wondered what they are? Well, whether you are an amateur botanist or experienced ecologist, we have some resources that may help.

Through our work, we have created a huge number of resources which are freely available to anyone who has an interest in plants and who would like to learn more about this interesting, unique habitat.

Species crib sheets focus on the primary species we have been working on throughout this project and you can use these to find out more information on them, from management to distribution and survey methods to lifecycle information.

We also have crib sheets to help with identifying arable plants and species that are closely related to them which are also downloadable on the link. They cover all identifying features including roots, leaves, seeds and fruits, flowering periods and size – we have them for Buttercups, Carrots, Cornsalads, Mints, Poppies and Speedwells. These are great if you want to brush up on your ID, or if you are working as an ecologist or advisor and would like more identifying features without the sometimes-complicated keys you can use in the field.

There is also a range of habitat management guides which have been put together to help you better understand changes you can make on land to help encourage and improve the habitat for arable plants and the species that are dependent on them.  If you are after something a little more beginner-botanist friendly, we have our brilliant 'Mosey in the Margins' guide as well as a 'Discovering Arable Habitat' worksheet – linked to the curriculum and perfect for parents, carers and teachers.

All of these resources are available in downloadable format here (scroll down to the yellow bar half way down that says “show downloads”, or you can request hard copy versions of any resource by emailing

You can find out more about the project and how you can get involved by visiting the Back from the Brink website and clicking on the Colour in the Margins Project page:


Zoe Morrall

Colour in the Margins Outreach Officer


Colour in the Margins is part of the Back from the Brink programme, funded by the National Lottery, and led by Plantlife in partnership with the RSPB.

 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.

What’s been happening with Gems in the Dunes here on the Sefton coast?

Project Manager, Fiona Sunners fills us in on what’s been happening with ARC's Gems in the Dunes project on the Sefton coast over the summer and what they've got planned for the winter season.

Well it looks like the wildlife has been carrying on as normal, despite our activities being slightly curtailed! Over the summer we were a bit more active once again, as restrictions were lifted. Some of our volunteers returned to the dunes with us, to help create more sand patches for the Sand lizards, whilst others attended our Northern dune tiger beetle online training before embarking on surveys out on the dunes. With the help of the volunteers, we have been able to gather tiger beetle records for the majority of the coast, at least for the August population and have a peak count of over 3500 beetles.

Other volunteers picked up their Natterjack toad surveys surveys, spotting a handful of late spawn strings and keeping an eye on tadpole activity. We were really pleased, to find toadlets at many of pools on the coast, and quite surprised to see such good numbers at one of the pools in Formby, that we knew had been heavily used by visitors during lockdown. Toadlets had not been recorded at the Queens Jubilee site since 2012. Although adults and spawn have been recorded there the last few years, so it was really great to see toadlets there again this year.

Despite not being able to survey early on in the Sand lizard season, we have managed a few sightings of adults over the hotter months of July & August. However one of our volunteers who only lives 10 minutes from the dunes has managed to see a fair few lizards on the site he monitors, even throughout lockdown when out exercising. Now it’s hatchling season, each year I‘m surprised how  small they are compared to the adults, as are the volunteers when they first spot them, but it’s a great feeling when you do catch site of them. A huge thank you to all our volunteers over the summer months – we couldn’t do it without you! Don’t put your feet up yet - there’s still plenty going on.

As October approaches we are planning our bryophyte surveys, searching for Petalwort and Sea bryum as well as the particularly scarce Matted bryum, not recorded here since the 1930’s! So there will be plenty of searching on our hands and knees once again. We are also thinking about the habitat management work we have to do in the project. We’ll continue with work to improve the sand dunes for all of our key species and many more; by clearing scrub from shaded dune slopes and overgrown slacks, to increase connectivity, basking, foraging and egg laying sites, as well as clearing vegetation from within the pools to make better spawning sites.


Our plan is to continue working with our volunteers on these tasks as much as we can. We will continue to follow the ever-changing guidance in order to keep everybody as safe as we can, following social distancing and hygiene measures throughout. If you are interested in finding out more, please get in contact with us at


Fiona Sunners

Gems in the Dunes Project Manager


 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.

Conservationists and keen cyclists Jen and Mark Smart may have hung up their cycling helmets, emptied the panniers and given their leg muscles a well-deserved rest after they finished their Funds for Waders cycling fundraiser last week, but there’s still plenty to say about the Black-tailed Godwits that were behind this challenge.

Readers of the previous blog from Project Godwit will recall that Jen and Mark wanted to visit all 11 nature reserves in England where head-started Black-tailed Godwits reared and released by Project Godwit have been spotted before migrating to Africa. The dynamic duo took on this endurance challenge of cycling 600 miles in 8 days to raise funds for Project Godwit and the International Wader Study Group (which gives out small grants each year to support wader projects around the world).

Jen & Mark Smart – about to embark on the ‘Funds for Waders’ cycling challenge.
The route covered 600 miles and visited 11 nature reserves.


Nature reserve: WWT Steart Marshes, Somerset

Head-started Godwit spotted here: Nelson

Jen and Mark kicked off their adventure departing from WWT Steart Marshes in Somerset – where head-started Godwit Nelson was once spotted. This male Godwit visited Steart Marshes in July 2017. He was one of the first head-started birds to be released as a chick at WWT Welney in June 2017 – therefore it was quite a surprise to the team at Project Godwit to discover this youngster on the other side of the country, at just one month old! Nelson spent the breeding season this year on the Ouse Washes, after pairing with Lady, another Godwit head-started in 2017. The pair have met up each spring for the last three years.


Nature reserve: Titchfield Haven National Nature Reserve, Hampshire.

Head-started Godwit spotted here: Morgan

The second day of the challenge took Jen and Mark to Titchfield Haven National Nature Reserve in Hampshire. The Godwit to have been spotted here is Morgan, seen in July 2018 and again two years later recently in July.  Morgan is a male Godwit who was head-started and released at WWT Welney in June 2018. Since then he has been regularly spotted each spring at RSPB Ouse Washes in Cambridgeshire.

Titchfield Haven NNR, managed by Hampshire County Council.


No ‘Godwit stops’ to a reserve where Godwits have been spotted today – but with dreadful stormy weather over 72 very hilly and soggy miles, plus a puncture, Jen and Mark had enough to contend with. This wasn’t enough, however, to deter Jen and Mark from doing a radio interview over the phone for BBC Radio Somerset whilst sheltering under an underpass nearly Crawley. Who ever said conservation wasn’t glamourous?


Nature reserve: Kent WT Oare Marshes

Head-started Godwit spotted here: Hope

By Day 4 Jen and Mark were at the halfway point of their cycling fundraising challenge and visited the Kent Wildlife Trust nature reserve Oare Marshes. The head-started Godwit spotted at this site is Hope – head-started and released at WWT Welney in 2019. A mere two months later Hope turned up at Oare Marshes in Kent in August 2019. Hope hasn’t been reported to Project Godwit since last year (and therefore doesn’t have her own profile page yet), but as most young Black-tailed Godwits don’t usually return from migration to the UK to breed until the age of two years, it’s not unusual to have not received any recent sightings of this Godwit. Fingers crossed Hope will be back at the project sites in the Fens next year.

Stormy skies at Kent Wildlife Trust’s Oare Marshes.


Nature reserve: RSPB Old Hall Marshes, Essex

Head-started Godwits spotted here: Lady & Manea

Next along the route was RSPB Old Hall Marshes nature reserve in Essex. It was two-for-the-price-of-one for this Godwit stop, as siblings Lady and Manea have both been seen here at Old Hall Marshes, spotted together in July 2017.

Both Manea (male) and Lady (a female, unsurprisingly) were both head-started as chicks in June 2017 at WWT Welney. Lady spent the breeding season this year at the Ouse Washes (with Nelson), moving between WWT Welney and the RSPB Pilot Project site. The last reported sighting of Manea was in April 2019 at WWT Welney.

Manea at RSPB Ouse Washes in May 2018 (Photo by Jonathan Taylor).


1st Stop

Nature reserve: Suffolk WT Trimley Marshes

Head-started Godwits spotted here: Fenn & Tipps

It was a two-stop day for Jen and Mark and a hat-trick for ‘Godwit of the Day’. First stop was at the Suffolk Wildlife Trust nature reserve Trimley Marshes, where head-started Godwits Fenn and Tipps have both been seen. Fenn was head-started at WWT Welney in June 2019 and spotted a month later here in July, while Tipps was head-started in June 2017 and seen in July 2017.

2nd Stop

Nature reserve: RSPB Boyton Marshes, Suffolk

Head-started Godwit spotted here: Chiney

Next stop along the 600-mile route was RSPB Boyton Marshes nature reserve in Suffolk – where Chiney was seen during July and August 2019. Chiney is a 2019 head-started Godwit who hasn’t been reported back at the project sites in the Fens of East Anglia as yet.

Chiney, head-started at WWT Welney in 2019.


1st Stop

Nature reserve: Norfolk WT Cley Marshes

Head-started Godwits spotted here: Swampy, AnoukBenwick & Chopstick.

The penultimate day for Jen and Mark and another challenging one. Firstly, major mechanical failure struck with Jen’s bike – meaning the rest of the day had to be ridden with a single speed conversion, then Jen and Mark were buffeted along the North Norfolk coast by 45 mph winds!

As if cycling 600 miles in 8 days in storms wasn’t challenging enough.

First stop was Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Cley Marshes where many head-started Godwits have been spotted since Project Godwit launched in 2017: Swampy, Anouk, Benwick and Chopstick.

2nd Stop

Nature reserve: RSPB Titchwell, Norfolk

Head-started Godwits spotted here: BenwickMoWedge, Gold, ChopstickChip & Rosti

Next stop was RSPB Titchwell nature reserve, where head-started Godwits Benwick, Mo, Wedge, Gold, Chopstick, Chip and Rosti have all been spotted. Many head-started Godwits have spent time at these sites in North Norfolk in the autumn, feeding up before migration. Some stay for weeks before journeying south to West Africa, Spain and Portugal, demonstrating the importance of these coastal sites for migratory waders.

We are grateful to all the volunteers around the UK who report sightings to Project Godwit.

Swampy, head-started at WWT Welney in 2019.


1st Stop

Nature reserve: WWT Welney, Cambridgeshire

Head-started godwits spotted here: All 112 reared and released to date

Another puncture to fix before departing for the final day of Jen and Mark’s Funds for Waders cycling fundraising challenge. Day 8 brought them back to the Fens, visiting the three project sites of Project Godwit where the lives of all the head-started birds begin. WWT Welney is where all the head-starting happens: godwit eggs are incubated and chicks are reared in specialised pens before release at fledging age, to get them through their most vulnerable time of life.

2nd Stop

Nature reserve: RSPB Ouse Washes, Cambridgeshire

Head-started Godwits spotted here: Too many to mention!

Next along the route is RSPB Ouse Washes nature reserve, where this year the head-started Godwits really boosted the breeding population. There were no pairs breeding here in 2017 – but this year there were 6 pairs. Head-started female Earith, who features on the back of the Project Godwit cycling jersey, nests at this site and in three years has fledged six chicks.

Jen and Mark at RSPB Ouse Washes, Cambridgeshire.
Head-started female Earith features on the back of the cycling jersey.

3rd and Final Stop

Nature reserve: RSPB Nene Washes, Cambridgeshire

Head-started Godwits spotted here: Too many to mention!

RSPB Nene Washes nature reserve is a befitting end point for Jen and Mark to cross the finish line, as this is where the eggs are sourced each breeding season. Collecting the eggs early in the season encourages the adult breeding pair to lay another clutch. 112 Godwits have been head-started and released since the first year of the project in 2017, to boost the number of Black-tailed Godwits breeding in the UK.

The finish line at RSPB Nene Washes, Cambridgeshire.

600 miles cycled in 8 days, visiting 11 nature reserves and over £6000 raised so far for wader conservation! To all who have donated, thank you so much from all the team at Project Godwit.

There’s still time to donate to the Funds for Waders cycling fundraiser!

Thank you for your support.

A small token of our thanks to Jen and Mark for all their sterling efforts for Project Godwit.

As many of us wander through the arable countryside for exercise, dog walking or to appreciate the stunning array of plants that surround us, I wonder how many of us stop to think about what lies beneath our feet and the history of past generations that have walked there before us?

To have the opportunity to deliver a brand-new Countryside Park for the benefit of wildlife and the community is an exciting challenge. The prospect of starting with a blank canvas with endless possibilities for interpretation themes allowed us to explore all of the amazing things about arable landscapes. Whilst we revelled in celebrating the amazing wildlife and stunning views offered at Dawlish Countryside Park, we were also very keen to delve into its past and learn about its history!

To begin with, a visit to the Devon Records Office and a look at the tithe maps revealed that the three main wildflower grassland plots we have today were once thirty five separate arable fields used by various landowners- each field with its own, often quirky name. We wanted to learn a bit more about the types of farming that happened here, the type of equipment they might have used, and any indications of what life was like in the past.

We had special permission to allow a metal detectorist onto the site for a short period of time who scanned only half of the Park but revealed some staggering finds. All finds were taken to RAAM (Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery) in Exeter for verification.

In this first picture, you can see a large piece of a Devon Plough almost certainly pulled by four Oxen which has sheared off. Wearing yokes instead of collars like Horses, the last Oxen to work in the county was recorded in East Devon in 1878.

Other assortments of ironmongery found included chain links and drag harrow spikes dating back over 200 years.

In this third picture, you can see a mixture of pottery found at the Park. Most of it is fairly recent with examples of Victorian drainpipes, but at the top you will also see 13th Century green glazed pottery. The Victorians were great innovators and engineering was limited only by the materials available to them. There are three main ceramic types- earthenware, stoneware and porcelain. You will also notice the piece of clay pipe and a honing stone. Kept in a farmer’s pocket, a honing stone was easily accessible to maintain sharp edges on sickles and scythes during harvest time.

You can see from this varied collection of metalwork that there is plenty of history to be discovered just beneath the surface.  Here you can see amongst other things musket balls made by pouring molten lead or alloy into a two-part mould. The mould seam is the thin line around the circumference of the musket ball. They were categorised not by diameter but by how many musket balls would weigh a pound. You may also be able to see several Georgian six pence’s, watch faces and even Georgian shoe buckles!

Most excitingly, even greater treasures can be found within the arable landscape. In this picture you can see a collection of flints.  The two flints at the bottom of the picture have been confirmed as Neolithic. In particular the arrowhead flint shows marks of ‘percussion’ where the flint has been struck to chip bits off until the desired shape is achieved. This process will have happened by Neolithic people at Dawlish Countryside Park some six thousand years ago!

So,  when you next enjoy walking through your local arable landscape, allow your mind to ponder what stories may be locked up in the history beneath your feet!


Jon Steward, Countryside Ranger

Dawlish Countryside Park



 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.