Rare bee-eaters breeding on National Trust land on Isle of Wight

A rare bee-eater on the Isle of Wight; part of a breeding pair. Credit: Andy Butler

A rare bee-eater on the Isle of Wight; part of a breeding pair. Credit: Andy Butler

A pair of colourful and rare bee-eaters that have set up home on National Trust land on the Isle of Wight have become only the third record of this European bird to breed successfully in the UK in the last century.

Bee-eaters, which would normally be found nesting in southern Europe, were last recorded breeding in the UK in 2002, when a pair nested in a quarry in County Durham and two young successfully fledged. Before that, two pairs were recorded raising seven young in a Sussex sand-pit in 1955.

Bee-eaters, with their kaleidoscopic plumage, are one of the most beautiful birds in Europe.

The bee-eaters, which were discovered on the Island in mid-July, have set up home in the sandy hills of the Wydcombe Estate on the south of the Island in a small valley where the soft ground, rolling landscape and stream access provides ideal conditions for their nest burrow. The burrow could be up to three metres long.

Ian Ridett, National Trust Isle of Wight Ranger, said: “We have set up a 24-hour surveillance operation around the site to protect these rare visitors, as any unhatched eggs could be a potential target for egg thieves.

“We have had incredible support from the RSPB, Isle of Wight Ornithological Group and our volunteers and staff, some of whom have travelled from the mainland to help.

“The hot temperatures since spring have helped an above average arrival of bee-eaters, with more than ten seen along the south coast since May. With rising temperatures, the varied landscape and bountiful supply of insects on the Wydcombe Estate was obviously enough to tempt the bee-eaters to nest here.”

The adult birds have been spotted delivering food into the nest which indicates that the eggs have hatched. The chicks will not leave their underground nest site for another fortnight or so, so the number of chicks hatched is still not known. Bee-eaters traditionally lay clutches of four to nine eggs, and the first chick sighting is eagerly anticipated.

Matthew Oates, National Trust nature and wildlife expert, said: “The bee-eater is arguably the most stunning bird on the British list; it looks tropical.

“It’s really exciting to have these bee-eaters breeding on National Trust land, and we are pulling out all the stops to help the chicks safely fledge, whilst keeping the public up-to-date with their progress. As our climate changes it’s likely that we’ll see increasing numbers of new visitors on our shores.”

Keith Ballard, the site manager at the RSPB’s Brading Marshes reserve on the Isle of Wight, said: “It’s the stuff of dreams to have a rare nesting event like this on the Isle of Wight; and it’s looking like the initiative by the National Trust rangers to make the nest site safe is going to lead to success for these birds.

“There was a very real threat that these nesting birds could have been targeted by egg thieves, so it’s been quite a nervous period over the last 12 days. It has been a pleasure for the RSPB staff and volunteers to help with this operation.”

Further information on the Wydcombe bee-eaters can be found on Ian Ridett’s blog or by calling the estate office on 01983 741020.

A designated public viewing point has been identified overlooking the birds’ favourite feeding area so that visitors can get the best possible sightings of the exotic looking creatures. This will be carefully managed though, as the birds’ wellbeing and welfare takes priority.

Taking a holistic approach to food production

Today see’s the publication of a major new report on food and farming in the UK, called ‘Square Meal’, by ten organisations, including the National Trust. Rural Enterprises Director at the Trust, Patrick Begg (http://twitter.com/NT_Pat), takes a look at the focus of the report and the challenges ahead.

“The last week has been one of soaring highs and depressing lows.

First, was the most inspiring of visits to Knepp Castle Estate near Horsham in West Sussex, where Charlie Burrell has been re-inventing a thriving, lowland estate. His 2,000 acres has gone, in just over a decade, from a scoured, arable/dairy financial black hole, to a landscape dripping with natural health and economic possibilities.

This was followed by the House of Commons debate on implementing the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) in the UK. It was a dispiriting and familiar trip around the threats to agriculture from administrative burdens and regulatory hurdles to the reinforcement of apparent entitlements to cash. These are issues, of course, and they do need to be dealt with.

But there’s a need for a much bigger debate and for thinking that breaks free from the bureaucratic and self-interested doldrums. We need to look beyond CAP and to address the constraints that farming’s dependency on it has created.

So we’ve been delighted to come together with a range of organisations to kick start the debate. The ‘Square Meal’ report , published today, sets out the scale of the challenges around food, nature, environmental protection, farming livelihoods, diet and health and challenges the political parties to rise to these in framing their manifestos for the forthcoming election.

There are a range of specific policy responses which we believe are critical to future progress. These include: ensuring public procurement leads in the purchasing of sustainably produced food; stopping using ‘production efficiency’ as the key metric for success; and making a much more effective and concrete response to the call for ‘bigger, better, more joined up’ habitats which Prof John Lawton enshrined in his vital report on the future of nature.

We’re also asking for much more leadership from Government. Without this, it’s hard to see how the big leaps we need can be made. We want a long term vision in place that blends the farming, food, environmental and social sectors much more coherently and we need Government to address market failures and to reward those delivering public benefit complemented by a properly embedded ‘polluter pays’ principle. We hope the ‘Square Meal’ report will kick-start this conversation.”

National Trust joins State of Nature family

Back in May 2013 a seminal report was published by twenty-five of the leading nature organisations in the UK charting the decline of species across the UK in recent decades.

The High Peak Moors project is all about creating a better long term future for the natural world

The High Peak Moors project is all about creating a better long term future for the natural world

The National Trust has now joined this family as it seeks to celebrate the beauty of the natural world and work with partner organisations to reverse and slow down the rates of species decline.

National Trust Head of Nature Conservation Dr David Bullock is on the State of Nature steering group and other Trust staff from the wildlife and countryside adviser’s community will be involved.

According to the report, the State of Nature, 60 per cent of species have declined in recent decades and one in ten species are at risk of disappearing all together from these islands.

Dr David Bullock, Head of Nature Conservation at the National Trust, said: “The State of Nature report was a wake-up call to us all – about the fragility of nature and about the role of people in protecting the special places that nature calls home.

“We will bring our rich experience as major landowners and as naturalists to the table; working in partnership with other leading wildlife organisations.

“This coalition is a really important movement for the future of nature in the UK – a chance to think big and bold about how we secure the future of our species and habitats for future generations to enjoy.”
Across England, Wales and Northern Ireland the Trust cares for 250,000 hectares of land (the same size as Derbyshire) and 742 miles (1300km) of coastline. Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire, one of the first places acquired by the Trust in 1899, has an amazing 8,500 species and the Farne Islands off of the Northumberland coast is England’s largest seabird colony.

The Trust is working to look at how we manage land (uplands, lowland areas and the coast) as we grapple with the huge challenges of climate change. We’re thinking big about the challenges of managing large land holdings such as the High Peak Moors in Derbyshire, working with the Woodland Trust to restore ancient woodland at Fingle Woods in Devon and are planning species introductions and re-introductions in Surrey.

David Bullock, concludes: “At the heart of everything that the Trust does is connecting people and places. There is a real passion and interest in the natural world in the UK and the State of Nature coalition can play an important role in connecting and reconnecting people to the wildlife where-ever they live.”

You can follow the fortunes of wildlife at National Trust places by following the hashtag #NTnature on twitter or visiting: http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/nature

Weather and wildlife – a review of the year so far

 

Matthew Oates, Nature and Wildlife expert for the National Trust, reflects on the weather so far this year and looks at how it has affected our wildlife.

“This winter was one of the stormiest on record and the wettest since 1766. Despite this, it was also the mildest winter in more than 100 years

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National Trust launches coastal appeal in bid to buy Bantham beach and Avon estuary

A view from the coast of the golden sands at Bantham beach, popular with families and walkers

A view from the coast of the golden sands at Bantham beach, popular with families and walkers

A multi-million pound fundraising appeal is being launched today by the National Trust in a bid to raise money to acquire Bantham beach and the Avon estuary in south Devon.

One of the finest estuaries in South West England and the best surfing beach in south Devon, this coastline is a place that has captured the hearts and minds of generations of holiday-makers and local people.

If the appeal is successful the Trust would maintain the high-quality access enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of people every year and would work hard to further enhance the landscape along the estuary as a home for nature.

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FOUND: rare fenland violet rediscovered after absence of ten years

The rare fen violet (Viola persicifolia) has been re-discovered at the National Trust’s Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire following an absence of more than a decade – it had last been seen in 2003.

The rare fen violet found at Wicken Fen after an absence of ten years

The rare fen violet found at Wicken Fen after an absence of ten years

The fen violet is probably the most elusive of our native violet species – a tiny plant growing to maximum of 25-30mm, it has bluish-white flowers with a mother-of-pearl sheen.

The endangered species is on the UK Biodiversity Action Plan and is known to exist in the wild at only 3 sites in the country (including Wicken Fen).

The plant likes a wetland habitat with alkaline water. Seeds can lie dormant in the ground for many years and will only begin to grow when the ground has been disturbed and the weather conditions are right.

Previously the violet was re-discovered at Wicken in the 1980s following an absence of more than sixty years, only to disappear again at the turn of the century.

Habitat loss along with the effects of drainage, ploughing, and lack of management on many of its former sites have all had a major part in the dramatic decline of the species.

The fen violet was re-discovered during a botanical survey undertaken on Monday 19 May.

Martin Lester, Countryside Manager at Wicken Fen said: “It’s fantastic to see the fen violet again at Wicken Fen.”

“It was a moment of satisfaction, surprise, tinged with relief that we had found it again. This delicate wetland plant is clinging on to survival not just in this country but across Europe.

“No-one can really explain why it can disappear for long periods only to reappear decades later – let’s hope it says around for a few years this time.”

Other rare plants that can found at Wicken Fen include Marsh Pea, Marsh Fern, Fibrous Tussock Sedge, Round-fruited Rush, Milk Parsley; and three rare aquatic plant species – Flat-stalked Pondweed, Long-Stalked Pondweed and Whorled Water-Milfoil.

More than 8,500 species have been recorded at Wicken Fen making it the top site for wildlife in the care of the Trust.

Trust tree losses biggest in two decades

New research has revealed that some of the country’s favourite woodland places have seen their biggest loss of trees in a generation as a result of the extreme winter weather.

A 600 year-old oak tree which has come down at Woolbeding in Sussex

A 600 year-old oak tree which has come down at Woolbeding in Sussecx

More than 50 National Trust sites have been surveyed with many gardeners, rangers and foresters saying that the losses of trees has been the greatest in more than two decades and in some cases the Great Storm of October 1987.

High winds and extreme weather throughout the winter have seen some places lose hundreds of trees, including many valued ancient trees.

The National Trust cares for 25,000 hectares (61,776 acres) of woodland across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It looks after many world famous trees including Newton’s Apple Tree at Woolsthorpe Manor in Lincolnshire and the tree at Runnymede in Surrey where the Magna Carta was signed.

Many of the trees that have been lost have blown over rather than snapped off due to the saturated ground conditions. However the big picture varies, with some places seeing little damage, and unlike the storms of 1987 and 1990, nowhere has been devastated.

Matthew Oates, National Trust Specialist on Nature & Wildlife, said: “People love and need trees, and the loss of specimen trees in gardens and parks, and of ancient beeches and oaks in the woods and wider countryside hurts us all, and damages much wildlife. We value and venerate these old sentinels and need to become increasingly aware of the power of the weather.

“Increased storminess, and increased extreme weather events generally, are likely to stress trees further, especially veteran trees. We will have to think carefully about where we establish trees and what species we plant.”

The Killerton Estate in Devon has suffered some of the biggest losses, with more than 500 trees blown over by the storms, including 20 significant trees within the design landscape.

Many other specimen trees in gardens and parks have been blown over or badly damaged, particularly in South West England and in Wales. However many gardens outside the West have also suffered, such as Tatton Park, south of Manchester, Attingham Park near Shrewsbury, Nymans in Sussex and Scotney Castle in Kent.

A few historically or regionally important trees have been lost, such as a rare black walnut at Hatfield Forest, which was the largest in Essex.

Sometimes ‘wind blow’ in woods presents a good opportunity for natural recolonisation by pioneer species such as ash and sallows.

This 200 year old oak tree came down at Stourhead in Wiltshire on Valentine's Day

This 200 year old oak tree came down at Stourhead in Wiltshire on Valentine’s Day

Alan Power, Head Gardener at Stourhead in Wiltshire, said: “Over the past three or four weeks we’ve lost 20 trees in the garden, with up to 400 across the wider estate.

“We’ve lost one spectacular oak tree, which could well be between two hundred and two hundred and fifty years old and planted by the man who created the landscape garden at Stourhead.

“Storms like we’ve seen this winter are all part of the estate’s history. If people can come along and they do see the trees on the ground they’ll realise it’s not just a one off, it happens throughout the history of the estate and it is part of working so closely with nature.”

Matthew Oates added: “As people venture out this spring, they will still be able to see these fantastic places, but a few old friends may be missing or lying down providing interesting wildlife habitats.

“Our teams are working hard to keep access to our gardens and parkland open by clearing any fallen trees from footpaths.”

Examples of tree losses across National Trust places:

Trengwainton Garden in Cornwall – Around 30 trees have been lost, namely from the shelterbelt that surrounds the garden. To date, more than 1000 hours have been spent clearing up the storm damage, with more work still required.

Trelissick in Cornwall –Lost three old lime trees, several mature oak and two very large scots pine in the park
Stourhead in Wiltshire – Up to 400 trees lost across the wider estate, including a 200-year-old oak.

Mottisfont and New Forest in Hampshire – There has been a loss of up to 300 trees across three main areas of wind-blown woodland. In addition to this there have been a number of scattered trees across roads and rivers.

Selborne and Ludshott Commons in Hampshire – Lost around 300 trees, which will require three months clean-up work.

Ashridge in Hertfordshire – Full details not yet known, but a number of ancient and veteran trees have been lost, including a large ash and five pollards in Frisden beeches and in excess of 100 birch trees.

Croft Castle and Parkland in Herefordshire – Lost around 40 trees including a chestnut from the chestnut avenue.

Osterley Park in Middlesex – Lost three 250-300 year old English oaks, two 150 year old cedar of Lebanon and a 100 year old sycamore

Hatfield Forest in Essex – Lost 18th century black walnut and 250 year old oak along with a lot of superficial damage to trees and some structural damage to pollards

Penbryn in Ceredigion – Lost a 5.2m girth ash, which is an exceptionally old ash tree

Castle Ward in County Down – Up to 70 trees have come down over the last few months as a result of the strong winds, including 8 significant trees.

The wings of change: 50 years of butterflying

An ever-changing climate, urban sprawl, forestry and modern farming techniques have all affected the butterfly world in the last fifty years, according to National Trust naturalist Matthew Oates.

Celebrating his 50th season of butterflying, Matthew Oates has reviewed the winners and losers of the butterfly world since the 1960s while taking a look at their future in the decades ahead.

Matthew Oates, who received his first butterfly net for his birthday on 7 August 1964 and is now the UK’s leading expert on the iconic Purple Emperor, said: “Nearly all butterfly species have seen dramatic changes over the last 50 years and for some it seems their ecology has changed almost entirely.

“Sadly, there have been more losers than winners during my career, with Dutch Elm disease, woodland clearance, intensive agriculture, urbanisation and a changing climate all playing their part.

“It’s been a massive rollercoaster ride for me. Some butterflies have done remarkably well and in some districts new species have appeared. At the National Trust’s Arnside Knott, a top butterfly site in south Cumbria, five new species have colonised during the last two decades.

“There have been many great personal highs too, notably the long hot summer of 1976 when butterflies boomed and the wonderful Painted Lady invasions of 1996 and 2009.”

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At this career milestone, Matthew Oates, who continues his butterfly research with support from the National Trust, predicts more unforeseen and significant change to come for butterflies in the UK.

The last 50 years
Winners:

  • The Large Blue was reintroduced in the UK from Sweden after being declared extinct here in 1979. The National Trust’s Collard Hill played a key role in this success story, which was achieved by the dedicated work of a couple of top scientists.
  • Adonis Blue and Silver-spotted Skipper declined severely when closely-cropped chalk grassland disappeared following the loss of rabbits to Myxomatosis. However, they are now recovering well due to conservation work and the recovery of rabbit populations: the Adonis Blue returned suddenly to the Cotswolds in 2006 after 40 years of extinction. Within 3 years there were 25 colonies, mainly on National Trust hillsides around Stroud.
  • The Essex Skipper saw a sudden expansion in central southern England during the early 1980s in a run of good summers.
  • The Brown Argus, Gatekeeper, Marbled White and more recently Silver-washed Fritillary have also increased and are expanding their range across the UK, and there are signs that the Purple Emperor is too.
  • The Comma has also made a comeback in the UK, with a stronghold now in Northern Ireland, particularly at the National Trust’s RowallaneGarden.
  • Butterflies are now very well monitored and promoted by the dedicated charity, Butterfly Conservation.

    The Adonis Blue has made a comeback

    The Adonis Blue has made a comeback

Losers:

  • The White-letter Hairstreak, which breeds on elms and was formerly common in elm landscapes, collapsed as a result of Dutch Elm Disease in the 1970s. It has since staged a low key comeback in many areas but remains a shadow of its former self.
  • The Wall Brown used to be common along road verges, woodland rides and rough grassland, but started to disappear, mysteriously, in the mid 1980s and is now rarely seen away from the coastal fringes of England and Wales.
  • The Small Heath, one of the UK’s commonest butterflies, has virtually disappeared from woodland, though it still occurs in open grassland.
  • The Duke of Burgundy and High Brown Fritillary are also struggling, with few of the colonies Matthew found while surveying them in the 1980s and early 1990s remaining.
  • The ‘Spring Fritillaries’ (Pearl-bordered Fritillary, Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary and Duke of Burgundy) were once found in woodland clearings all across central southern England but are now very rare there. 
  • Surviving butterfly habitats are now often isolated fragments which makes natural spread very difficult.
  • Above all, 50 years of butterflying has seen massive highs and lows, often associated with weather.  Butterfly populations are hugely affected by weather, and overall climate change will affect them radically long term.

The next 50 years

 

  • The Large Tortoiseshell, extinct for many years, could recolonise southern England from mainland Europe. There are early signs this may be happening already, with several sightings on National Trust land on the Isle of Wight this spring.
  • Milder winters, associated with the less adverse side of climate change, might allow the continental Swallowtail, European Map and the Queen of Spain Fritillary to colonise from across the Channel.
  • Urban spread, farming and to some extent forestry remain the big issues: yet we could have whole landscapes teeming with butterflies if society supports the work of conservationists.

Matthew Oates added: “In the next 50 years, climate change is likely to affect butterflies massively. There will be even more winners and losers, with new species likely to colonise from abroad and established UK species forced to adapt to survive.

“If the work of dedicated and passionate conservationists continues and butterflies keep growing in importance within British culture, the challenges of the next 50 years can be overcome.

“A big social revolution is taking place: old-fashioned butterfly collecting has died out and been replaced by harmless photography and more people are growing butterfly-friendly plants in their gardens. Butterflies need friends and are gaining many new converts.”

The three week recent heatwave across much of the UK is likely to boost the butterfly population in the short term, with Oates anticipating a butterfly boom for his anniversary year. This comes on the back of some very challenging times for butterflies due to recent bad summers.

Recovery of the Manx shearwater on Lundy. Have the Welsh invaded?

Lundy

Lundy

We are celebrating the recovery of the Manx shearwater on Lundy Island. Owned by the National Trust and leased to the Landmark Trust, Lundy has always been famous for its seabirds. Lundy, in Norse, means Puffin Island and there are puffins there today. But the real gem is the Manx shearwater.  Most of these birds (over 90 %) breed on islands off the British and Irish coasts. Until a decade ago it was doing badly, almost certainly because of predation by rats. With just a few hundred pairs left on the island and their eggs and chicks eaten by rats, there was real prospect of losing them completely, as happened on the island of Canna (Inner Hebrides).

Back in 2002, the Seabird Recovery Project partnership of National Trust, RSPB, English Nature (now Natural England) and Landmark Trust was formed to try to save Manx shearwaters on Lundy. Our priority, removing the brown rats (common) and black rats (ship). Globally both are widespread and abundant. In Britain and Ireland the black rat is only found on a few islands and dockland warehouses – it is really rare.  How could we remove one of Britain’s rarest mammals from one of its few refuges? Our priority – indeed our global responsibility – was to rescue the dwindling population of Manx shearwaters on Lundy.

By 2013, nearly a decade after rat removal, there are now thousands of shearwaters breeding on Lundy, and their burrows are in many more parts of the island than when the rats were present. The speed of recovery has been remarkable. Manx shearwaters spend the first five or six years of life at sea, in the south Atlantic. The contribution of these home-bred birds to the increase must have been small  – it must have involved birds from other colonies. I reckon that shearwaters from the massive colony on the islands off Pembrokeshire have always visited Lundy, and they may have tried to breed. But until the rats went they were always deterred or their eggs and chicks were eaten.

Manx Shearwater (Omarrun)

Manx Shearwater (Omarrun)

Removing rats from islands with shearwater colonies does not always result in a quick recovery of the shearwaters. It did on Ramsey off Pembrokeshire, but it has not happened on Canna where rats were also removed about a decade ago. This is curious. Canna is next door to the huge shearwater colony on the island of Rum. Does Rum have enough birds to export to, and recolonise, Canna? We have high hopes rats will be removed from the Calf of Man (where there really should be lots of Manx shearwaters), and also on Scilly, to allow the recovery of this amazing bird. My hunch is that if  and when the rats are removed from the Calf, the shearwater population will recover quickly. We already know that Welsh island birds spend the later part of the summer in the northern half of the Irish Sea, so are in the area for some of the year. But where would immigrant shearwaters to recolonise Scilly come from? Recovery there may take some time. In the meantime, on islands where rats have been removed you seem to get a recovery of ground-nesting and other birds and large insects such as big beetles, so rat eradication from seabird island – however unpleasant – is an ecological win win.

Stop press – Great to see that the puffins on the National Trust’s Farne Islands have recovered from their low count in 2008. A stonking 40,000 pairs!

Granite stacks on the west coast of Lundy.

Granite stacks on the west coast of Lundy.

  • Dr David Bullock- Head of Nature Conservation at the National Trust