Saving England's most threatened species from extinction

Archive:

Posts

Archive

Despite the problems lockdown has presented, it has led to some good news, as this blog by Mike Coates, RSPB’s Farnham Heath Warden (and star of Springwatch 2019) explains:

This spring should have seen another translocation of Field Crickets to sites on two RSPB reserves, at Farnham Heath and Pulborough Brooks. Unfortunately, the Covid 19 lockdown put paid to any hopes of carrying out this work.

However, RSPB site staff were able to continue with monitoring visits. It was expected that there might be fewer crickets around on the main site at Farnham as a result of the wet winter, and, sure enough, numbers recorded in May and early June were down on 2019, but still pretty respectable, with 135 calling males at the peak.


Field Cricket Release April 2017 Farnham Heath 

What was NOT expected (although it was hoped for) was to hear calling males at both the translocation sites. This is brilliant news as it suggests very strongly that the crickets released in 2019 successfully bred! If we had been able to release crickets in the spring, there would always have been a slight doubt that any we heard calling were the “new” ones, but, thanks to lockdown, we know that there are the beginnings of not one, but two, new breeding populations of this threatened insect.


Field Cricket (c) Rowan Edwards

Gilbert White, the “Founding Father” of British natural history writing, mentioned Field Crickets several times in his book “The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne”, published in 1789 and still in print. He seems to have had a soft spot for field crickets, so it’s fitting that the future of this charismatic little beastie gets such a significant boost in the year that marks the 300th anniversary of Gilbert White’s birth!

 

Mike Coates – Warden, RSPB Farnham Heath

 

 

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.

 

Earlier this year, the Dorset's Heathland Heart team commissioned a student project, working in collaboration with the Arts University Bournemouth, to make a scale model of one of our priority species.  This was done with the objective that the finished species model would be used by us as a valuable teaching aid and interpretation piece for public events and activities.

We were really pleased that student artist, Keren Early, chose to create a scale model of the Heath bee-fly (Bombylius minor), an endemic heathland species.


Heath Bee-fly feeding on Wild Thyme (c. Sophie Lake)

As with all Bombylius species, the Heath Bee-fly is a bee mimic and not a bee at all. They have a distinctive fluffy body and long spear-like proboscis (tongue) which is used to feed on the nectar from flowers. At just 7-8.5mm in size the Heath Bee-fly is smaller than the more common Bee-fly species, including Bombylius major, which can be found in other habitats including gardens.

Bee-flies are most easily identified when basking as they are fast flyers and generally hover over flowers without settling. They can fly backwards as well as forwards, and have a distinctive high-pitched buzz.

 

Keren very kindly let us interview her about the project, here is what she had to say:

Q. Tell us about yourself?
A. My name is Keren Early, I am 22 years old and originally from London.

Q. What course are you studying at University?
A. BA Model Making at the Arts University Bournemouth.


Keren with her Bee-fly model in progress (c) A. Roe

Q. Why did you choose this course?
A: I first got into model making from an art and design prospective and wanted to pursue this art form. I have a love for nature and all its beautiful wildlife, so when I got the opportunity to work with Back from the Brink I was really happy.

Q. What attracted you to working with the Back from the Brink Project?
A: The opportunity to make an impact using my skills and passions, which is why I got into art in the first place. I was really happy to be able to help raise awareness for such a beautiful insect.

Q. Why did you chose to make the Heath Bee-fly?
A: Through my researching into the wildlife that populate the heathlands around Dorset I looked into the life-cycle of a Bombylius Minor and found it so interesting. My particular interest was in the way they protect their lava. Throwing it into the larval burrows of another insects to raise them.

Q. What new skills did you develop? And what where the challenges?
A: During the making of this model I tried many new processes such as using liquid resin, hair punching with synthetic hair, and welding. I found the hair punching particularly hard due it being a very time consuming process and quite tedious at times!


Keren’s completed Heath Bee-fly model (c. K. Early)

Q. What have you learnt about this species? And its habitat?
A: While researching about this amazing creature I also learned about how many different types of species there are on the heaths and how much they need protecting.

Q. Has working on this this piece inspired you in any other ways?
A: Doing this brief with Back from the Brink has inspired me to know more about where I now live in Bournemouth. To plant flowers that encourage wildlife, and protect the populations of the Bombylius Minor by educating the people around me.

Q. Have you increased your knowledge and interest in wildlife conservation?
A: Yes my interest has grown so much in this subject not only about the Bee-fly but also other animals that inhabit the heathland areas.

Q. Anything else you want to add?
A: I really enjoyed working with the BftB team on this project, they have been amazing and very helpful! Keren 😊

 

Thank you so much to Keren for all her hard work, even all that hair-punching! It was really worth the effort as the finished piece looks brilliant. Just for reference the model was made on a 25:1 scale of the bee-fly’s life size. So it will be much easier to spot then the real thing! But don’t let that deter you from trying to see them in the wild.

Where to find these special creatures - out on Dorset’s lowland heaths, the Heath Bee-fly is generally seen along sandy paths, south-facing banks and slopes.

      
Left; ideal sandy bank with exposed burrows. Right: Heath Bee-fly about to egg-flick (c. Chris Spilling)

If you are really lucky you may catch it egg-flicking, as Keren mentioned; where by the adult flicks its eggs towards the larval burrows of its young’s host species, such as solitary mining bees. It can also be found nectaring on flower-rich habitat adjacent to heathland.

Sadly this species now appears to be confined to the heaths of East Dorset which supports some of the best remaining fragments of lowland heath in the UK. But it has previously been recorded in the New Forest, the Isle of Wight, the Isle of Man and the coast of West Wales, so keep your eyes peeled!

More details on this amazing species here

The Dorset Heathland Heart project is working with conservation organisations locally to protect valuable habitat on which these species depend and to raise awareness of their conservation needs through education and citizen science.

 

Aemelia Roe

Outreach Officer - Back from the Brink, Dorset's Heathland Heart

 

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 Does a Godwit Scientist do in Lockdown?

Project Godwit's latest blog post is by Mo Verhoeven, RSPB Senior Research Assistant.

On January 14th this year, Jelle Loonstra and I handed in our joint PhD on “The behaviour and ecology of the Black-tailed Godwit”. The next day, I was on an airplane to Chile with the mission of outfitting Hudsonian Godwits with transmitters to record their 14.000+ km migration from Chile to the North American Arctic. I was coming from winter, which was clear from my pale skin and a permanently smoky smell imparted by my woodstove. But suddenly I was in Chile, wearing shorts and freed from my PhD for the first time in months. A good start to 2020!

Mo Verhoeven (taken by Rob Buiter)

A few weeks later (at which point I happened to be in the forests of Maine, wearing smoky snowpants), I received a job offer to work for the RSPB as a Senior Research Assistant on Project Godwit to monitor the Godwits nesting at the Nene Washes. I imagined the tumbling Lapwing, the whirring Snipe and the nesting Godwits. It was hard to say no. On March 15th I arrived in the UK. It was sunny, the Washes were partly flooded and the first Godwits had returned! The stage was set for a beautiful spring. And a beautiful spring it was, with flowers blooming, nests being built, and chicks to come…but on the 23rd a nation-wide lockdown was announced and all fieldwork was cancelled! What to do?

Project Godwit had already collected data on breeding Godwits at the Nene Washes in 2015-2019, which meant I could start analysing some of that. First, I analysed data from the eight geolocators that had been retrieved in previous years. Geolocators are data-loggers that continuously log the ambient light-level. Each geolocator is attached to a ring that is placed on a godwit’s leg. The Godwit then carries this geolocator with it throughout the year – on migration to the non-breeding grounds and back to the Washes again in the spring. Researchers then do their best to capture that same bird again; if they’re successful, they remove the logger and use the stored light-level data to establish the moment of sunrise, midday and sunset throughout the year. When you know the length of each day, you can estimate the latitude (north/south), since this varies predictably with date across the world. Estimating longitude (east/west) comes next and this relies on a centuries-old technique. First you log the moment of midday at a specific location, usually Greenwich. From this you can calculate the shift in the time of midday relative to Greenwich, and therefore determine how much the godwit has moved to the west or east relative to Greenwich. This is why seafarers had chronometers and why precise chronometers were worth a lot of money.

Raw light-level data recorded on the geolocator carried by OB-OL(E)

Two of the geolocators I examined had logged especially interesting migrations (during my PhD, I analysed more than 300 migrations by Dutch godwits – these two were immediately distinguishable from the pack!). The first was from ‘Cornelia’, a head-started chick released at the Nene Washes in 2018 (also learn more here). Black-tailed godwit chicks are being head-started to boost the number of Godwit chicks that survive to fledging age. Chicks are reared by our project partner the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) at Welney Wetland Centre and released once fledged. The nearly fledged chicks are fitted with a unique combination of colour-rings and some are also fitted with a geolocator. Cornelia was released on June 27th 2018. She left the UK on the evening of August 13th and arrived in Africa on the night of August 15th, having probably flown non-stop.

The other was from a male Godwit known as OB-OL(E). In 2018, this male left the UK on June 21st, went to the Balearic coast of mainland Spain, and stayed there for three months. That’s not very uncommon. But on October 2nd, he crossed the Sahara and went to the Inner-Niger Delta in Mali. This is very late in the season for such a flight – in fact, it’s the latest southward Sahara crossing on record for an adult Godwit! For context: some Godwits start migrating in the opposite direction, from west Africa back north, as early as the second week of September. Why do Godwits behave so differently, and how do these individual differences come about? Interesting questions that challenge current knowledge!

Map of the migration route of godwit ‘OB-OL(E)’

The other analysis I have worked on during lockdown is comparing adult, nest and chick survival rates between an earlier period of research at the Nene Washes, during which the Godwit population at the Nene Washes increased (1999-2003) and a more contemporary period (2015-2016) in which the population has declined. This work shows that nest and chick survival, but not adult survival, are low in the contemporary period compared to the early period. The recent decline at the Nene Washes is therefore likely the result of lower reproductive success resulting in fewer birds recruiting at the Nene Washes. This study also indicated that nest survival was lowered because of an increase in nest predation. The reserve managers had already been thinking this was the case, and in 2017 started using special gates and electric fences to keep mammalian predators from depredating Godwit nests. My next task will be to evaluate whether and how effective those efforts were. I’ll keep you posted!

 

Project Godwit is a partnership between RSPB and WWT with major funding from the EU LIFE Nature Programme, the 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.

 

 

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.

 

#StagWeekend 5th – 7th June – Celebrate and save threatened Stag beetles

On 5th – 7th June alongside the People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) we will be launching a Stag Weekend with a difference – and one that you can take part in during lockdown too! Guest blogger Laura Bower, Conservation Officer at PTES, provides everything we need to know about Stag beetles, including tips for the garden and how to record your sightings!

Stag beetles
Stag beetles are one of the most spectacular insects in the UK. The male’s large jaws look just like the antlers of a stag. They spend most of their life underground as larvae, only emerging for a few weeks in the summer to find a mate and reproduce. Stag beetles and their larvae are quite harmless and are a joy to watch. Find out more about stag beetles with this fact sheet, plus children’s fact sheet.

What is Stag Weekend?
Stag Weekend is a celebration of stag beetles. Across the weekend of 5th – 7th June we will be celebrating all things stag beetle, including sharing our top tips for turning your garden into a stag beetle sanctuary, showing how to identify stag beetles and their larvae, and advising on what to do if you’re lucky enough to see one. We want to hear all about your stag beetle sightings, see your photos and you can even take part in our special stag beetle quiz on social media too. If you’re on social media, we’d love to see your photos using #StagWeekend @PTES @buzz_dont_tweet


Male Stag beetle ©PTES

Where are stag beetles found?
The stag beetle range stretches across Europe. The UK is at the north-west edge of its range and we seem to have a stronghold here, as you can see from this map. Although stag beetles have experienced historical population declines here in the UK and their numbers appear to be stabling, they still need our help. Stag beetles are now even extinct in two countries in Europe, so it’s important that we protect these beautiful beetles and do all we can to make our gardens, parks and woodlands a haven for them.


Great Stag Hunt records from 2019 and previous years. Source: People’s Trust for Endangered species

How do I know if I’ve seen a stag beetle?
Stag beetles are large black beetles with chestnut wing cases and distinctive antler-like jaws. You can learn how to distinguish them from other similar beetles here.


Female Stag beetle © Ross Bower

Larvae
There are many similar looking larvae – large, cream larvae with a brown head and jaws. Stag beetles, rose chafers, maybugs and lesser stag beetles all have similar looking larvae. Take a look at our larval identification guide to find out how to tell them apart.


Stag beetle larva © Edward Jude  

What should I do if I see a stag beetle?
If you find an adult stag beetle, please leave it where it is, unless it’s in danger of being run over or trodden on. If you have to move a beetle for its own safety, then please move it as short a distance as possible. If you dig up a stag beetle larva, please put it back exactly where you found it. The next best thing is to re-bury the larva in a safe shady place in your garden with as much of the original rotting wood as possible. Then please report your sighting.

 Where can I report my sighting?
At PTES we’ve been running the Great Stag Hunt since 1998. Over the last 20+ years we’ve had thousands of stag beetle sightings from all corners of the UK, which is brilliant, but in order to learn more about where they’re still living and where they most need our help, we always need more sightings. You can help by telling us when you see either larvae or adults by simply recording your sightings.

 If you have more time why not try a Stag beetle count!
This annual survey is part of a European-wide study that will allow us to see long-term trends and take action where and when needed. Anyone who lives in an area where stag beetles are found can join in from 1st June 2020. There are two ways you can take part:

  1. Count stag beetles in your garden - This garden version of the survey can be carried out at home especially for 2020 season with Covid-19 restrictions in place. Simply count stag beetles for half an hour each week during June and July.
  2. Count stag beetles along a short walk - This version is designed to be part of your daily exercise and in line with Government guidelines. Please don’t put yourself or others at risk. Choose a 500m transect (a linear walk) where you know stag beetles occur. Walk the route weekly, at least six times during June and July

How can I help stag beetles in my garden or green space?

  1. Retain stumps of dead and decaying wood - Stag beetle larvae need dead wood to feed on as they grow and develop throughout their long lives underground, so the most important thing you can do to attract stag beetles into your garden is to retain dead wood and tree stumps. When tidying up our parks and gardens tree stumps (from when trees fall or are cut down) are often removed, which is problematic for stag beetles as such wood acts as both a habitat and food source. But, they can be made into a feature of your garden with careful planting, for example growing climbing flowers up the stump.
  2. Make a log pyramid - The perfect lockdown activity! The next best way to provide a home for stag beetles is to build a log pyramid using broadleaved wood (not conifer). This involves burying logs upright in the ground so that they are in contact with the soil which keeps the wood moist. Instructions can be found here and if you’re on social media we’d love to see your creations.


Female Stag beetle on log pyramid ©PTES


Log Pyramid © PTES

Other tips to help stag beetles

  1. Cover water butts - Stag beetles can drown in water butts if there is no way out. If you do find one in a water butt, please take it out, they can often recover and will fly off after drying out.
  2. Escape routes from ponds - As with all wildlife it’s good to provide shallow edges and stepping stones in ponds so that any wildlife that finds its way into your pond, can also find its way out.
  3. Avoid weed matting - Stag beetles live most of their lives underground as larvae (between three and five years!), but once they have pupated and transformed into an adult beetle, they need to dig their way back up to the surface, in order to find a mate and begin the next generation. Weed matting can prevent females being able to dig down into the soil to lay their eggs, and can trap adults underneath if they are trying to emerge.

More about stag beetles
Stag beetles spend most of their very long life cycle underground as a larva. This can be anywhere from three to five years depending on the weather. Periods of very cold weather can extend the process. Once fully grown, the larvae leave the rotting wood they’ve been feeding on to build a large cocoon in the soil where they pupate and finally metamorphose into an adult. Adults spend the winter underground in the soil and usually emerge from mid-May onward. By the end of August, most of them will have died. They do not survive the winter. Female stag beetles prefer light soils, which are easier to dig down into and lay their eggs. Newly emerging adults also have to dig their way up through the soil to reach the surface, therefore areas like the North and South Downs, which are chalky, have very few stag beetles. They also prefer areas with the highest average air temperatures and lowest rainfall throughout the year.

Conservation
Stag beetles are legally protected from sale in the UK. They are also classed as a ‘priority species’, listed on Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. These magnificent beetles are Red listed in many European countries and have undergone a decline across Europe. They have gone extinct in Denmark and Latvia, although there has been a successful reintroduction into one site in Denmark in 2013.

 

Laura Bower

Conservation Officer at the People’s Trust for Endangered Species

 

 

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.

 

Alongside cooking, crafts and creativity, one of the emerging themes of the coronavirus lockdown has been gardening and growing – at least for those lucky enough to have a garden or an allotment. It is also one of the themes of the Colour in the Margins project, because we want gardeners and allotment-holders to be thinking about the annual plants – the weeds, for want of a better word – that pop up when the soil is turned over.

Take the allotment managed by my partner and I, on the North Downs in Kent. It’s on what was originally an arable field, and, if dug over and left to its own devices, will sprout a fine crop of weeds. Some of these, we don’t want: Perennial Sowthistle is beautiful, but runs rapidly through the soil, forming dense patches; and Field Bindweed – well, just ‘no’.


Common Fumitory

Yet many others are a lot less troublesome. Field Pansies are delicate and lovely, and I’m very fond of the diminutive snap-dragon that is Small Toadflax. Red Dead-nettle is loved by bees. Fumitories I like too – they seem to be especially keen on popping up amongst the recently-planted onion sets, but are easy enough to pull up or reduce in size if they get too overwhelming. Even Common Poppies are allowed some space, as, just like the Fumitories, some can easily be pulled out if they are staring to take up too much room.


Small Toadflax

Allowing space for annual wild flowers amongst the growing crops and flowers is just the same principle on which Colour in the Margins is founded: we need a greater number and variety of flowers to make the countryside – and town – a richer and more vibrant place. More flowers mean more insects, more birds, more everything.

Arable wild flowers are important in their own right, too. You might not think an allotment is a place for the conservation of rare wild plants, but it can be. I was amazed, a few years back, when Weasel’s-snout – another snap-dragon type of plant, and designated as Vulnerable on the UK Red List – appeared on the allotment plot next to mine. How it got there, I’ve no idea, but it certainly wasn’t deliberately planted, and I quickly made sure some plants found their way onto my plot, where it has appeared every year since.


Wild Pansy on the author's allotment

As a result, Weasel’s-snout is now one of the rare wild plants which are part of the Arable Seed Swap project being run as part of Colour in the Margins. Through this, we are building a group of allotment-holders and gardeners who are growing and sharing seed from a number of rare (and less rare) arable wild flowers, all originally from wild populations. Between us, we are growing plants like Corncockle, Corn Buttercup, Wild Pansy, Night-flowering Catchfly and Red Hemp-nettle, collecting the seed and sharing it around other growers. It is a way to see plants you might never otherwise come across, learn how they grow, and bring them to the attention of others: one of the advantages of an allotment site is that it is shared (and we all like a nose at our neighbours’ plots) and often has an open day, giving others an opportunity to come in and learn about rare wild plants as well as about the joys of growing your own veg.


Weasel’s-snout growing on an allotment

Growing these plants, ‘in captivity’ as it were, is also a potential safeguard against extinction, keeping plants going and producing more seed for potential future restoration of wild populations. And even if the seeds from allotment-grown plants never make it back to the wild, the knowledge we gain by sowing the seed, seeing how and when it germinates, watching it flower – even watching it get eaten by pests – will provide a reservoir of knowledge essential to the future conservation of these fascinating and threatened flowers.

Interested in become one of our network of growers? Go to Facebook and search for ‘Arable Seed Swap’.

Richard Moyse

Ranscombe Project Manager

 

Discover Ants with a Wildlife Nest Quest During Lockdown

Back from the Brink and Buglife are inviting people to take part in a unique wildlife quest during their daily exercise outdoors. If you happen to see a wood ant nest during your walk, run or cycle, you can now take part in Nest Quest, a new public participation survey to find out more about our amazing ants.

We are keen to learn about wood ant nest locations, distributions and densities across the country, but particularly in Devon. And we need your help to do this!  By joining in Nest Quest, you can learn more about the fascinating lives of ants and have fun along the way. Connection with nature and natural places can also help support mental and physical wellbeing, with added significance in this time of social distancing and isolation at home.


Nest of the Narrow-headed Ant (c) Alex Hyde

Our Narrow-headed Ant Project Officer Stephen Carroll explained “wood ants are about the least socially distanced of our insects, with tens of thousands of individuals living in incredible nest cities built up into pyramid-like mounds of pine needles and other materials. As well as ant societies, these structures host and support hundreds of other types of wildlife, in fact wood ant colonies can play a key role in maintaining and influencing surrounding habits”.


Narrow-headed Ant Nest (c) Jenni Stockhan

No special skills or journeys are needed, the Nest Quest survey can be carried out easily while walking the dog or during outdoor exercise. Just keep a look out for the distinctive wood ant nests, especially if in woodland or moorland edge, and submit records by smartphone or by computer when back at home. Oh, and don’t forget to take a photo – you could even take an ant nest selfie!  To find out more, or to begin the quest, head to the Nest Quest page.

 

Back from the Brink / Buglife

 

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

  • Help us to spread the word of this species, and the others we will be helping 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.

Pheasant’s-eye is blooming again at Ranscombe Farm, after … how many decades? Five? Ten, More? It was certainly here once – the 1899 Flora of Kent notes that it was found in the chalk hills around the village of Cuxton, which must surely have included the arable slopes of Ranscombe. Pheasant’s-eye was once so common in the countryside in South-east England that it was gathered up and sent by train to the flower markets of London, to be sold as ‘Red Morocco’. Now it is so rare as to be officially listed as ‘Endangered’ – just one step down from ‘Critically Endangered’, which itself is just one step from ‘Extinct in the Wild’. Here in Kent, in recent decades it has been found in just a couple of locations, and has struggled to persist in either.

Pheasant’s-eye is a plant of tremendous romance, and not just for its rarity and beauty. Its scientific name is Adonis annua, named by Linnaeus himself after the handsome mortal of Greek myth who was lover of both Aphrodite, goddess of love, and Persephone, Queen of the Underworld. The blood of the dying Adonis was said to have mingled with Aphrodite’s tears and become the anemone flower; perhaps Linnaeus thought the blood-red flowers of Pheasant’s-eye – which do resemble anemone flowers – were more likely to have sprung from this source.


A flower and ripening seed-head at Ranscombe Farm Reserve in May 2020

But this romance – part of the joy of the plant itself – must be tempered by science if we are to see its return. And the plants now blooming at Plantlife’s Ranscombe Farm Reserve are part of an experiment to find the best methods for re-establishing wild populations of Pheasant’s-eye. Measured amounts of seed were scattered last summer over eight small plots, four on chalky soil and four on clay. Recently, four plots – two on clay and two on chalk – received a light dose of slow-release fertiliser. Later this year, it is hoped that counts of individual plants, of seed-heads, and, if possible, of the numbers of seeds produced, will help us gauge both the initial germination success and the effect of soil type and soil fertility on the plants’ productivity.

The results, as yet, are far from certain. Pheasant’s-eye is notoriously difficult to germinate, with the advice from Kew’s experts being that seeds need to lie on the soil surface through a large part of summer, baking in the sun, for the plant embryos to develop. From 7,200 seeds sown at Ranscombe at the end of last July, only 16 seedlings were found at the end of October. Whether more have sprung up since, we do not know, our survey work having been held back by the coronavirus lockdown. We also need to compare our results with those of other sites, where seed was sown after being ‘pre-baked’ in the lab rather than being left out in the sun – we know they’ve had success too, but how does their germination rate compare with ours?


Seedling of Pheasant's-eye in October 2019

What we do know, at least, is that some of our seedlings at Ranscombe have survived the winter, grown up, and started to flower – in fact flowers were spotted in April, something of a surprise for a plant which is not supposed to flower till July.  Better yet, those flowers have started to set seed and we may be at the start of a long flowering season. If the plants can make more seed than we initially sowed, then there is a chance that the population can grow. And if we can get the population to grow, we will understand at least something of the mechanism for properly restoring Pheasant’s-eye – the beautiful and romantic Adonis – back to the farmed landscape.


Pheasant's-eye flowering at Ranscombe Farm Reserve in April 2020

Richard Moyse

Ranscombe Project Manager

Up Close with Godwits - An Interview with Amelia Bennet-Margrave

In our latest blog, WWT Engagement Officer Jess Owen interviews Amelia Bennet-Margrave who joined Project Godwit’s head-starting team for the 2019 breeding season at WWT Welney as an Assistant Aviculturist. Jess asked Amelia about her experiences of working up close with the godwits.

How did you come to be on the 2019 head-starting team? What attracted you to the job?

‘I had just finished university and was excited to be out in the field! I loved that Project Godwit was encompassing so many aspects of conservation, creating habitat for the long-term survival of the species, head-starting to increase breeding success, monitoring wild birds and providing fascinating insights on black-tailed godwits and their migration. It was a really exciting project and one that has been fascinating to watch; over the three years, head-started birds have returned to breed at project sites and now comprise an estimated one quarter of all pairs breeding in the Fens!

I was also excited by the idea of gaining experience in animal husbandry for wildlife conservation – it’s incredibly rewarding caring for animals and something I love doing. And I love wading birds! In the UK we have so many lovely waders arriving to winter on our extensive shoreline. It’s one of our most beautiful wildlife spectacles – with huge swirling flocks, beautiful plumage and those wonderful calls filling the landscape! Currently, many British breeding waders are in decline, so I was really interested in the opportunity to work on a conservation project trying to change this! And finally, I really admire the WWT and their work to conserve species and habitats around the globe.’

What first sparked your interest in nature and wildlife conservation?

‘Butterflies! We used to get a lot of butterflies – especially peacock and red admiral – in our garden, and I loved watching these when I was little! I was given a Dorling Kindersley book on butterflies of the world when I was eight and that was it! (I’ve always wanted to see a Swallowtail butterfly since and I finally did last year on one of my days off whilst working at Project Godwit – they are just beautiful!!) We had a park near our house with long grass and wildflowers too, so I was always out and surrounded by it! And like many other people, by watching David Attenborough’s wonderful documentaries and programmes like the BBC’s Lost Land series with George McGavin!’

What kind of experiences and jobs did you have before you worked on the head-starting programme?

‘I had experience in animal husbandry from college, where I did a BTEC Level 3 course in Animal Management (equivalent to A-levels). The course covered subjects such as nutrition, welfare, legislation, biology, biochemistry and more, and there was a lot of hands-on experience with a wide variety of bird, reptile, mammal, fish and invertebrate species. For my work experience placement, I helped at a local wildlife rescue centre. After this, I did a degree in Zoology and Conservation at Bangor University. While at university, I became a trainee in bird ringing and went out most weekends to learn, working with a large range of passerine and wader species, some seabirds and wildfowl. It was a real privilege to learn and to see such beautiful birds up-close.

I also did a lot of volunteering! It’s a wonderful way to enjoy wildlife and learn from really inspiring people! I volunteered at a great local nature reserve on their weekly work party, gaining experience in habitat management and creation, working in teams and learning how to use a variety of tools. For six years I was a volunteer with The Lake District Osprey Project, interacting with visitors and helping to monitor the ospreys breeding there – I loved it! I also had the amazing opportunity to volunteer for three weeks with the RSPB as a relief warden, helping to monitor an arctic tern colony on a beautiful island, which was fantastic!’

What was the best moment for you on the job?

‘There were so many!! It’s really hard to pick just one…! Watching the first chick hatching after incubating the eggs for several weeks was an incredible moment!’

What was the hardest part of the job?

‘Finishing! I loved the job so much!

But also, the hot plastic suits we had to wear for biosecurity…’

What do you like and find most interesting about godwits?

‘I think migration in all species is really interesting, with so many factors involved, such as stop-over sites, wintering grounds, diet, timing and so much more. And godwits are no exception! There was a first for Project Godwit recently, as a 2019 head-started bird was seen in Morocco!

And black-tailed godwits are such beautiful birds, with lovely bright summer plumage and their fantastic “wickering” calls!’

What was the most interesting thing you learnt whilst head-starting?

‘There were so many things! I learnt so much from the amazing team here!

I think my favourite was learning about egg development and all the aviculture techniques used to monitor and care for eggs. It was incredible to see candling for the first time (using a light to examine the stage of development) and watch the chick breaking into the air space of the egg just before hatching!’

How did you feel when the godwits were released?

‘A little nervous, but it was really exciting to watch them go! There was a real sense of achievement too. It’s been such a huge privilege to watch these birds grow. Seeing them feeding and flying around the reserve was fantastic!’

Did you have a favourite godwit?

‘I loved them all! It was really amazing to watch as they all developed. But I admit there were two that were definitely my favourites! It’s been really exciting to hear about the sightings of birds from 2019 recently, I hope people keep sending them in and that we might see some of the 2019 class back this year!’

Photo by Amelia Bennet-Margrave – Head-started black-tailed godwit
chick in breeding facility at WWT Welney Wetland Centre.

 

Project Godwit

 

 

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.

 

Good Godwit News

It hasn’t been easy for the team at Project Godwit to get a good handle on what the godwits have been up to so far this season, for obvious reasons. When the coronavirus crisis emerged many team members became furloughed and most of the remaining team were confined to quarters.
Thankfully, however, we’ve been able to get a good idea of how the birds are faring thanks to site staff at the project sites, WWT Welney, RSPB Nene Washes and RSPB Ouse Washes. While staff have been undertaking essential site work on the reserves, such as checking livestock and managing water levels, they have been keeping a record of the godwits they spot.

Guess who’s back?

There are 16 head-started birds from the project back at the time of writing (8 from 2017, 8 from 2018). Here are highlights of some of the birds back so far.

Remi was first recorded back at Welney on 30th March and last seen 3rd April. Remi is from the Class of 2017, as is Ramsey (back at Welney since 12th April) and Anouk (back since 29th April at Welney).

Earith

Earith was spotted on 24th April back at the RSPB Pilot Project site (adjacent to the Ouse Washes). Earith paired with a wild-reared male in previous years and fledged a chick – a female, who is now two years old and also back in the Fens (at Welney). Earith is currently paired with an unringed male at the Pilot Project – fingers crossed they will breed again this year!

Head-started female Earith, photo by Jonathan Taylor at RSPB Ouse Washes

Also back at the Pilot Project are Nelson and Lady (aka ‘Lord & Lady Nelson’) . This pair have previously nested at Lady Fen, Welney in 2018 and 2019.

Chip

The last time this godwit was seen was in July 2019 in Senegal! Chip was the first head-started godwit to be seen in Africa on its wintering grounds, identified by his colour rings at Djoudj National Park, Senegal. Chip has since been spotted on 29th April feeding at a pool on Lady Fen at Welney.

Chip at WWT Welney in June 2018

Chip’s sister Wedge is also back, first spotted back at Welney on 12th April and again on the 29th. You may remember these birds were amongst the muddy egg cohort to be rescued from arable farmland in spring 2018 when the Nene Washes flooded. Dill was also amongst those rescued eggs, as was Estragon, both recorded back at Welney as of 12th April.

Cornelia

Some major news which deserves a fanfare: the first geolocator to be retrieved from a head-started godwit has recently been analysed by the team at Project Godwit. Cornelia had a geolocator attached to her as a chick in 2018, which was retrieved in 2019.

The data reveals she too around just 48 hours to leave the Nene Washes on the evening of 13th August 2018 and arrive in the wetlands of south-eastern Mauritania during the night on 15th August.  This incredible journey may even have been a non-stop flight! Cornelia return to the Nene Washes on 19th April this year.

Cornelia in June 2018 at WWT Welney

Denver

A well travelled godwit, Denver has been seen at the Giganta Ricefields in Portugal (in February 2019), near Leiderdorp in the Netherlands (in February 2020) and closer to home at Welney on 1st April.

Denver as a chick at WWT Welney in June 2017 

It seems there was a reunion with some of the head-started birds at the Giganta Ricefields in Portugal back in February. Delph was also there with Denver at that time (seen back at Welney 8th April), as was Morgan, who first returned to Welney on 8th April but moved to the Pilot Project on 27th April. Such a gathering is no surprise, considering these ricefields plus the nearby Tagus estuary in Portugal hold around 70,000 black-tailed godwits in late winter of both the limosa and islandica races.

 

Project Godwit

 

 

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.

 

It’s blazing hot, my legs are starting to cramp and sharp limestone is digging into my knees, but I can’t move too often for fear of starting a landslide. Perched half-way up a scree slope peering intently into the calyx of a flower only a couple of inches tall to see how ripe the seeds are isn’t quite what I expected for my first season of monitoring Red Hemp-Nettle on Cleeve Common, working as Conservation Officer for Cleeve Common Trust. It’s a relief when it’s done, but very satisfying once the data has been entered and I find that a new colony of the plant has exceeded expectations and produced more seed in its first year than was used to seed the colony.


Cleeve Common screes

Cleeve Common, the highest point of the Cotswolds overlooking Cheltenham, is home to the Critically Endangered Red Hemp-Nettle (Galeopsis angustifolia) which grows on scree left over from limestone quarrying, rather than the more usual arable margins. The plants at Cleeve Common seem to be smaller than some other sites, many of them only reaching two to three centimetres tall and only having one cluster of flowers. This is probably because of the extremely harsh surroundings which do at least prevent most other species from competing with them. The loose scree is extremely dry and quite mobile. Small landslips caused by sheep or rabbits (or surveyors) mean that the surface gets turned over, much like cultivation of an arable field, meaning that so far, no management has been required to keep the colonies going.


Red Hemp-Nettle

For several years, Cleeve Common Trust who look after the site have worked with Kew Millennium Seed Bank to try to secure a better future for this beautiful and rare little flower. In 2013, seed from Cleeve Common was collected and sent to the Millennium Seed Bank where plants were carefully nurtured over the course of several years to provide a large supply of seed. Using some of this seed, the original three colonies at Cleeve Common have now been boosted to eight and all are monitored annually.


Red Hemp-Nettle seeds

We are delighted that Colour in the Margins have now taken things a step further, funding Kew Millennium Seed Bank to grow on more of the seeds that came from Cleeve Common, producing thousands more which have been used to introduce Red Hemp-Nettle to other suitable sites in the Cotswolds. Several arable farms, a quarry and a steep road verge have been sown and we have our fingers crossed that it will take hold in at least some of these sites and form new colonies of this tiny jewel of a flower.


Sowing Red Hemp-Nettle seeds

Giles Alder

Conservation Officer - Cleeve Common Trust