BIRDS OF RAPID DECLINE – The British Trust for Ornithology has just published their latest Bird Trend Survey which makes sobering reading (19th January 2018)
It highlights the rapid and continuing decline of our Greenfinch population by 59% in just ten years. In the Long Term Trends: England section, the birds in Rapid Decline include Marsh Tit, Whitethroat, Spotted Flycatcher, Song Thrush, Linnet, Nightingale, Lapwing, Yellowhammer, Corn Bunting and Little Owl all of which are regular visiting or breeding species along the Great Elm to Mells Road Greener Greenways section of Route 24.
II: B U T T E R F L Y Habitats
More than three-quarters of the UK’s butterflies have declined in the last 40 years, according to the charity Butterfly Conservation and last year (2016) saw some saw the worst falls for butterfly numbers since the Big Butterfly Count began in 2010.
Sir David Attenborough : Helen Atkinson
The Small Tortoiseshell saw a 47 per cent drop in numbers while Peacock butterflies slumped to their second worst year on record, with a drop of 42 per cent on 2015 numbers. Sightings of Comma butterflies fell by 46% while Gatekeeper populations were down 40 per cent and Small Coppers dropped 30 per cent compared to 2015 according to Sir David Attenborough, President of the Charity. He adds “Worryingly, we are now seeing the fortunes of some of our once common butterflies mirror those of our rarest species and they too are now also suffering significant declines.” See article in The Telegraph
This situation has been further highlighted by a recent survey (18th October 2017) of nature reserves in Germany which states that three-quarters of flying insects in these reserved have vanished in the past 25 years. See article in Thae Guardian
Thankfully, 2017 has proved a wonderful year for butterflies (and bees) along the Way, both in numbers and diversity of species, which reinforces the crucial importance of habitats like the Sustrans cycle paths that provide ample, undisturbed larval and nectar food plants for a great number of butterfly species.
The following extracts are from The Butterfly Handbook by English Nature and refer to highways but apply equally to cycle routes. As long stretches of Route 24 abut onto farmland, the points made are particularly relevant and indicate that the cycle path constitutes an ‘optimum site’.
“The optimum sites for butterflies have a diversity of habitat to cope with varying climatic conditions, so that in hot dry summers butterflies can move to cooler areas with thicker soil less prone to drought, and in cool wet summers butterflies can move onto areas with thin dry soils that heat up quickly in the sun; a varied topography (as provided in road cuttings [and cycle paths] and on [disused railway] embankments) is especially important with anticipated climate change.
The local and landscape scales are probably the most important for butterflies. Habitat links such as wildlife corridors work especially well when the surrounding countryside is poor in habitat quality e.g.in intensively farmed land. In addition to providing connectivity between sites, some habitat links can function as breeding areas and act as source patches, which provide surplus individuals to unoccupied patches of lower habitat quality in the nearby area.
Habitat requirements include:
- Larval foodplants in correct position.
- Short or long sward
- Bare ground
- Presence of ants
- Nectar sources
The following is a list of the larval food plants used by the butterflies recorded on Colliers Way; the cycle path also has ample short and long sward, bare ground, shelter and nectar sources. No records have been made of ants. Data from The Millennium Atlas of Butterflies in Britain and Ireland (Asher, 2001).
A mass of flowering Bird’s Foot Trefoil along the Way
Larval Food Plants
- Birds Foot Trefoil: Wood White, Common Blue
- Common Dog Violet: Silver-Washed Fritillary
- Common Nettle: Comma, Peacock, Red Admiral, Small Tortoiseshell
- Meadow Grasses: Gatekeeper, Meadow Brown, Ringlet, Small Heath
- Tufted Vetch: Wood White
- Cock’s foot (grass) Meadow Brown, Ringlet, Speckled Wood, Large Skipper
- Fescues (grasses) Gatekeeper, Meadow Brown, Small Heath
- Ivy Holly Blue
- Yorkshire Fog (grasses): Marbled White, Speckled Wood, Small Skipper
- Thistles: Painted Lady
- Clovers (various): Clouded Yellow
- Charlock: Green veined White [Second: Orange-tip, Small White]
- Common Sorrel: Small Copper
- Common Restharrow: Common Blue
- Dove’s Foot Cranesbill: Brown Argus
- Holly: Holly Blue
- Hop: [Secondary: Comma, Peacock, Red Admiral]
There are no recordings of crucifers (larval food plant of Large White and Small White caterpillars) or Alder Buckthorn (larval food plant of the Brimstone caterpillar) all three very common butterflies along the Way. This of course does not mean that they do not exist there, merely that they have not been spotted, however, there is a field of kale abutting the path.
The following is a list of the Primary and Secondary Nectar food plants used by the Butterflies recorded along Colliers Way:
Nectar Food Plants
- Bird’s Foot Trefoil : Wood White, Common Blue, Small Blue, Painted Lady, Small White, Large Skipper, Small Skipper
- Bramble : Silver-washed Fritillary, Comma, Gatekeeper, Holly Blue, Meadow Brown, Orange-tip, Red Admiral, Large Skipper, Speckled Wood, Small Heath, Ringlet, Small Heath
- Buttercups : Wood White, Green-veined White, Holly Blue, Meadow Brown, Small Heath, Small Copper
- Cowslip : Brimstone
- Daisy : Small Copper, Small White
- Dandelion : Brimstone, Clouded Yellow, Orange-tip, Small White, Peacock, Small Copper, Speckled Wood, Large Skipper, Small Tortoiseshell, Small White
- Field Scabious : Small Tortoiseshall, Large White, Large Skipper
- Thistles : Brimstone, Comma, Peacock, Large White, Marbled White, Small White, Painted Lady, Clouded Yellow, Common Blue, Green-veined White, Ringlet, Red Admiral, Small Copper, Small Skipper, Meadow Brown, Small Tortoiseshell, Gatekeeper
- Hawkweeds : Orange Tip, Painted Lady, Peacock, Small Copper, Small White, Small Tortoiseshell
- Honeydew/Sap : Speckled Wood, Holly Blue, Peacock, Red Admiral
- Ragwort : Brown Argus, Clouded Yellow, Common Blue, Gatekeeper, Large White, Meadow Brown, Green-veined White, Peacock, Painted Lady, Ringlet, Silver-washed Fritillary, Small Copper, Small Heath, Small Tortoiseshell, Small White, Speckled Wood.
- Red Campion : Brimstone, Orange tip, Small White, Green-veined White
- Red Clover : Wood White, Painted Lady, Small Copper, Small Skipper, Marbled White, Small White
- Teasel : Large White, Meadow Brown, Peacock, Red Admiral
- Vetches (Vicia spp.) : Wood White, Brimstone, Orange-tip, Clouded Yellow, Common Blue, Small Blue, Small Skipper, Green-veined White
- White Clover : Brown Argus, Common Blue, Marbled White
- Yarrow : Peacock, Marbled White, Meadow Brown, Small Copper, Small Heath
Reptile Survey Sustrans and FML volunteers have been conducting a reptile survey on Collier’s Way as part of the Greener Greenways project . Findings : strong breeding populations of Slow Worms, Common Lizards and Grass Snakes, an average of 10 reptiles on each check plus a few Shrews, Toads and Voles.
III : B I R D Survey 2016
We must count ourselves extraordinarily fortunate that we are able to enjoy a considerable variety of birdlife whilst walking Colliers Way as so many of the birds sighted along the cycle path have shown catastrophic levels of decline throughout England. “What’s good for birds is also good for butterflies” and we have certainly seen a bumper year for butterflies along the Way.
However, the newly published Breeding Bird Survey 2016 Breeding Bird Survey 2016 makes sobering reading. Of particular concern to Colliers Way are the paragraphs highlighting the decline in woodland birds, particularly Nightingale, Garden Warbler and Spotted Flycatcher which feed and possibly breed among the trees and undergrowth along the cycle path.
Spotted Flycatcher – Summer – John Hansford
BIRDING in the Mells area
John Hansford (writing in The Bittern Newsletter of the Somerset Ornithological Society) reveals another interesting birdwatching area:
Mells is situated in the east of the county, approximately three miles to the west of Frome. The local habitat contains a fine mixture of open farmland, hedgerows and woodland with the Mells Stream flowing to the south of the village.
Mid- April to mid-May is a great time to take a walk along the cycle path (Colliers Way route 24), starting at Conduit Bridge and walking in either direction. The more energetic may desire of parking near the post office in Mells and walking up the lane, approaching Mells Down on foot. The fields and hedgerows tend to hold good numbers of Yellowhammers and Common Whitethroats.
Whitethroat – John Hansford
A few pairs of Lapwings not only breed here but over the wider area in this part of the county. Bullfinches, Skylarks, Linnets, Garden Warblers and Blackcaps aplenty can also be found. Red-legged Partridges are never too far away. Stock Doves and Jays should also be encountered. Nightingales and Lesser Whitethroats are also a strong possibility and were present last year. The calls of Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers will add to the flavour of spring.
Marsh Tits are normally found to the east of Conduit Bridge. Song Thrushes and Mistle Thrushes also breed here. All five owl species have been recorded with Barn, Little and Tawny Owls seen regularly. With suitable habitat in the area it is possible that Long-eared Owl might breed; any Short-eared Owls will be winter visitors. Look skywards – any raptor species is possible from Red Kites to Hobbies, Peregrines and Sparrowhawks. Ravens are never too far away.
Parking is available near Conduit Bridge and additional sensible parking can be done on roadside verges to the south of the Bridge. Mells post office has an excellent café attached to it, serving a splendid range of food for those that may wish to make a day of it.
Article in The Bittern, Newsletter of the Somerset Ornithological Society Issue: 5th March 2013
IV : A S H TREES (Fraxinus excelsior)
Ash trees make the perfect habitat for a number of different species of wildlife. The airy canopy and early leaf fall allow sunlight to reach the woodland floor, providing optimum conditions for wildflowers such as dog violet, wild garlic and dogs mercury, and consequently insects such as the rare and threatened high brown fritillary butterfly.
Bullfinches eat the winged seeds and woodpeckers, owls, redstarts and nuthatches* use the trees for nesting. Because trees are so long lived, they support deadwood specialists such as the lesser stag beetle. Often ash is accompanied by a hazel understory, providing the perfect conditions for dormice.**
Ash bark is often covered with lichens and mosses. The leaves are an important food plant for the caterpillars of many species of moth, including the coronet, brick, centre-barred sallow and privet hawk-moth. Woodland Trust
[Regretfully quite a few of the ash trees along the Way have succumbed to ash dieback disease but according to the Forestry Commission Fera map, the trees in the 10 km square around the Mells area are already infected (2016) so the trees here were unlikely to remain immune.]
*Bullfinches, woodpeckers, owls and nuthatches have all been regularly sighted along Colliers Way but no redstarts yet.
** although dormice haven’t been sighted along Colliers Way, there is certainly an ash grove with many hazel trees beneath so the conditions are there.
V : N I G H T I N G A L E S
Nightingale – Kev Chapman
[Nightingales heard on Colliers Way coming from a dense thicket of bramble, backing onto a deep hedge, surrounded by shrubs almost covering the path, quite close to the pond : 23.5.2017 and 1.6. 2017]
Nightingales are primarily insectivores, preying on insects such as beetles, ants, worms, and spiders found on the ground. They also eat insect larvae.
Nightingales have declined by 90% over the last 50 year writes Chris Rose in The Ecologist in May 2015.
Nightingale homes have been cleared away, thickets tided up or grubbed out, and Britain’s biggest single population of nightingales at Lodge Hill in Kent, is even under threat from housing development. We have all heard of the ‘canary in the coalmine’ and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. But in the case of the British nightingale, we have both rolled into one. It is the signature voice of spring and yet it is falling silent, vanishing from one copse, thicket and wood after another, year on year.
The Ecologist is based in Oxford – which for a piece about the nightingale, is a shame, as they have all but disappeared not just from the city, but from the whole county of Oxfordshire, as they have over so much of England and even from their former corners of Wales.
In his book The Nightingale and Its Song and Other Familiar Songbirds, written in 1932, naturalist and film-maker Oliver Pike described the nightingale as “common in suitable places” in Oxfordshire and stated: “I have seen more nightingales close to the city of Oxford than in any other part of England.” That could not be said now. Indeed there are probably more environmental film-makers than nightingales around Oxford today.
In 1980 a survey by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) found 79 singing Nightingales in Oxfordshire: another survey in 1999 found just 17 and if nothing is done to change current trends, the Nightingale could be extinct in Britain within 20 or 30 years.
They calculate that it has already lost 43% of its former range, and has declined over 90% since the late 1960s. The latest estimate is that there are around 5,850 singing (only the males sing) nightingales in Britain, which is fewer than people named ‘Nightingale’ (around 10,000).
Nightingales have always been found mostly in the south of Britain but old studies (and perhaps the distribution of people named Nightingale) show they used to be found as far north as Cheshire, South Yorkshire and Derbyshire.
They were also quite common across much of the Marches, parts of Wales, the Midlands and into Somerset, Dorset and Gloucestershire, as well as the Home Counties and East Anglia. Now they are increasingly confined to SE England – and getting rarer even there.
In recent years, researchers at the magnificent Ancient Woodland of Bradfield Woods in Suffolk, uncovered one factor in the disappearance of nightingales: deer are literally eating their key habitat, low dense growth such as that created by coppicing. But by the time their studies were published in full, the birds themselves had gone.
Over the past two or three decades, Southern England has seen a massive explosion in the numbers of deer, especially the small introduced muntjac which escaped from Whipsnade Zoo. They are literally eating nightingales ‘out of house and home’, as well as eliminating many wildflowers such as orchids, primroses and bluebells.
That’s one undoubted cause, and the only solution is to shoot or otherwise control muntjac and roe deer, and for landowners and managers to fence their woods, which is expensive. There are proposals to re-introduce lynx into England which could help but they’d have to get very busy. Until then, eat wild venison to help nightingales in Britain.
With a warming climate you might expect nightingales to be spreading north as some other birds are but the reverse is true. They are retreating south. One reason maybe that in common with some other summer migrant visitors to Britain that winter in the African ‘humid forest zone’ near the equator (such as spotted flycatcher and turtle dove), the nightingale is not getting a ‘climate signal’ that spring is coming earlier in the Northern Hemisphere.
So these birds, unlike those wintering in North Africa, may still turn up at the ancestral time, only to find that key food items have gone. They could be ‘out of synch’. Their wintering places too are changing, with forest converted to intensive farmland.
Other possibilities are that pesticides such as neonicotinoids may play a role, or even that hitherto uninvestigated factors such as the parallel decline of the southern wood ant, which old nightingale catchers and keepers used to use as bait and food, might be involved. But that’s me speculating.
What is certain, is that nightingale homes have been cleared away, thickets tided up or grubbed out, and coppicing of woodland is far less widespread than it once was. Britain’s biggest single population of nightingales at Lodge Hill in Kent, is even under threat from housing development.
It’s also true that a host of insects from moths and butterflies to ants, are far rarer than they used to be. With government funded research into most of our native flora and fauna almost abandoned, we may never get to nail down all the causes until the nightingales are ‘in the coffins’.
There are some glimmers of hope. With help from Anglia Water last week the BTO published a guide for landowners on how to manage ‘scrub’ – thickets of blackthorn and hawthorn – to maximise its suitability for nightingales. Grafham Water near Peterborough is one place where Anglia Water has done this successfully: they deserve credit for it. If enough land mangers acted on this advice we might possibly turn the tide. The 3,500-acre re-wilding project at Knepp in West Sussex is another big success story.
Then there’s the lynx, deer fencing and venison burgers, and tackling climate change, and organic farming. They’d all help. Let’s not allow the nightingale to slip quietly into the night and never be heard again.
Chris Rose is a campaigns and communications consultant and former campaigner for WWF, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth.