Landscape that inspired Thomas Hardy acquired by the National Trust

More than 200 acres of the sort of wild and windswept heathland that inspired Dorset’s most famous writer, Thomas Hardy, has been acquired by the National Trust. Slepe Heath in Dorset is the largest area of lowland heath that the Trust has acquired for more than a decade.

The magical Slepe Heath in Dorset. A landscape that inspired Dorset's most famous writer, Thomas Hardy. Credit: National Trust/Will Wilkinson.

The magical Slepe Heath in Dorset. A landscape that inspired Dorset’s most famous writer, Thomas Hardy. Credit: National Trust/Will Wilkinson.

As part of a conservation vision inspired by the landscapes featured in the novels of Thomas Hardy, Slepe Heath will connect the protected lowland heath of Hartland Moor, already looked after by the National Trust and Natural England, and the Arne reserve, owned by the RSPB.

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Isle of Wight bee-eaters rewrite the record books

Bee-eaters nesting on the Isle of Wight have raised eight chicks – the most successful breeding attempt by these birds, normally found in the Mediterranean, on record in the UK.

Three chicks have now fledged from one nest, on National Trust land, and another five chicks have fledged from a second nest.

Bee eater

Bee-eaters on the Isle of Wight. Credit Danny Vokins.

An adult bee-eater was first spotted at Wydcombe on 15 July by National Trust dragonfly survey volunteer Dave Dana. And chicks were first sighted a month later on the 15 August. There were originally thought to be nine chicks but one has not survived.

Dave Dana, a National Trust Volunteer on the Isle of Wight, said: “I’d just come from counting golden-ringed dragonflies at a stream and I thought ‘that bird looks a bit different!’

“Its flight path seemed almost triangular. I didn’t really appreciate the bird until I got home and looked at the photos. I’d always wanted to see a bee-eater in this country but I never thought it would turn out to be a major wildlife event.”

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Four bee-eater chicks take to the air

Four bee-eater chicks have fledged on National Trust land on the Isle of Wight thanks to aTwo juvenile bee-eaters, credit Andy Butler joint protection operation by the National Trust, the RSPB and Isle of Wight naturalists. It is the first time the birds, who usually nest in southern Europe, have bred successfully in the UK for 12 years.

Three of the chicks fledged last week and the fourth has tried out its wings in the last couple of days. If these survive, this will be the most successful ever bee-eater breeding attempt in the UK. The last successful attempt, which resulted in two chicks, was in county Durham in 2002, the first for 50 years.

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Dorset hillfort is the ideal home for nature

National Trust wildlife adviser Simon Ford tells us more about the rich wildlife that can be found at the newly acquired Hambledon Hill in Dorset:

“Hambledon Hill sits high above the River Stour in south-east Dorset. It has been cut from a steep chalk escarpment and the deep ramparts have provided the ideal environment for many species of plants and animals to thrive. They have also protected the wildlife from being lost to the plough. With 360 degrees of deeply incised banks, this has meant that whatever the weather, there is always some shelter from the elements.

A beautiful bee orchid caught in the summer light at Hambledon Hill. Credit: National Trust Images/Ross Hoddinott

A beautiful bee orchid caught in the summer light at Hambledon Hill. Credit: National Trust Images/Ross Hoddinott

The mix of species is very diverse, but includes characteristic chalk downland plants such as horseshoe vetch, harebell, common rockrose, squinancywort, salad burnet, common milkwort, small scabious, wild thyme and stemless thistle. Early purple, bee, pyramidal, common spotted and autumn lady’s tresses orchids have been recorded as well as notable species such as felwort, dwarf sedge, early gentian, bastard toadflax and meadow saxifrage.

Twenty-eight species of butterfly have been recorded including Adonis Blue, Chalk-Hill Blue, Brown Argus, Dark Green Fritillary, Grizzled and Dingy skipper, and Green Hairstreak. Glow worms are frequently recorded and there are records of white legged damselfly.

Brown hares are commonly seen and the grassland has a good population of skylarks, buzzards, kestrels and meadow pipits, while the scrub attracts blackcaps, white-throats, chiff chaffs and willow warblers.

The site is so important that it has not only been declared a Site of Special Scientific Interest but also a National Nature Reserve.

To ensure the site continues to be of top nature conservation value, the priority will be to maintain the correct grazing and to stop scrub from dominating the steep hillside.”

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.

A light at the end of the burrow?

“Within a generation, island seabird colonies in south west England could be thriving and free from the threat of rats”. That’s the view of conservationists this week as they reveal the amazing results of the Seabird Recovery Project on Lundy ten years after the project started, and embark on a similar major new project to eradicate rats that threaten burrow nesting seabirds on St Agnes and Gugh on the Isles of Scilly.

Puffins on Lundy (James Wright)

Puffins on Lundy (James Wright)

Survey teams from RSPB with funding from The National TrustThe Landmark Trust and Natural England returned to Lundy this spring and found a tenfold increase in Manx shearwater numbers since the rat removal operation a decade ago.

Helen Booker, RSPB Senior Conservation Officer in the South West said: “This is such an exciting result, better than we expected, and the rate of increase is an indication of just how important rat free islands like Lundy are as breeding site for seabirds”

The Lundy Seabird Recovery Project was a partnership initiated in 2003 between the National Trust, English Nature (now Natural England), RSPB, and Landmark Trust. The aim of the project was to recover the Manx shearwater population, which was then at a very low level with around just 300 breeding pairs. Ten years on, there are over 3,000 pairs.

Puffin numbers have also increased from 5 to 80 birds and guillemots, razorbills and shags have also seen substantial increases. Anecdotally, other species such as pygmy shrew and wheatear are also more numerous.

Derek Green, Lundy General Manager said: “We are delighted with this result which is showing benefits for a range of species on the island and shows just how much can be achieved. Lundy has been a wildlife haven for many years, although rats were always a problem we had to live with.

Their removal has transformed the island for both wildlife and visitors alike, and we’re watching with great anticipation and excitement as the cliffs and slopes of Lundy fill with the eerie calls of thousands of birds once again. “

Dr. David Bullock, Head of Nature Conservation for the National Trust said “Once the rats had gone from Lundy, the number of pairs of shearwaters on Lundy went from 100s to 1000s in matter of a few years which is outstanding news.

“Such a rapid recovery is unlikely to have been due to “home bred” birds. Shearwaters from other colonies must have settled to breed on the island. We do not know where these birds came from, but there is a massive shearwater colony on the islands off Pembrokeshire in Wales. So was Lundy repopulated in part by the Welsh?”

The striking results from Lundy are an indication of what can be expected a couple of hundred miles to the south west as the Isles of Scilly Seabird Recovery Project gets underway this summer.

This ambitious project seeks to also secure a legacy for similar seabirds and the Scilly shrew, as well as the community that lives and works not just on the islands of St Agnes and Gugh, but across the Isles of Scilly.

The Isles of Scilly Seabird Recovery Project, now the largest community-based island restoration project of its kind in the world, will provide a raft of benefits in the islands for the 25 years of the project’s life, and beyond. It is managed by a coalition of groups including RSPB, Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust, Natural England, Duchy of Cornwall, the Isles of Scilly Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) partnership and a representative from the islands of St Agnes and Gugh, with support from the Isles of Scilly Bird Group.

Jaclyn Pearson, Project Manager for the Isles of Scilly Seabird Recovery Project said: “Lundy has pioneered this type of project in the UK and it demonstrates just what devastating effects the rats were having on the island’s wildlife. Lundy is now the most important place in England for Manx shearwater, leaving the Isles of Scilly in its wake. This really has thrown down the gauntlet and in years to come it will be very exciting seeing the changes here.”

David Appleton of Natural England, who has been involved in both these projects, said: “Following Lundy’s example, in the 25 year lifetime of the Isles of Scilly project we can only imagine what the population of Manx shearwater and storm petrel will be in the South West of England.”

The first phase lasts five years and represents a significant investment of time and money. The funding has come mainly from the EU LIFE fund for environmental work – a dedicated pot that makes up just a fraction of a percentage of the EU budget – and the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) which aims to sustain and transform a wide range of heritage for present and future generations to take part in, learn from and enjoy.

Alongside the removal work, the project will also work with residents and visitors to highlight the importance of the islands for seabirds.

Darren Mason, a volunteer with the Isles of Scilly Seabird Recovery Project, is already working alongside local businesses, telling people about the important seabirds, the threats they face and what we can do to help. “Our seabirds are amazing, long-lived birds but species like the Manx shearwater and storm petrel are particularly vulnerable as they nest in burrows and crevices where rats like to forage. It is amazing to think that the storm petrel is a relative of the albatross, as they weigh the same as a few coins. I hope we will soon hear the delightful “purring” of these tiny ocean wanderers from many more places in the future as the result of the project.”

Weekly Witter: One swallow does not a summer make

The title is a quote from Aristotle and is difficult to dispute. His other proclamation on swallows, that they spend the winter in the mud of ponds, is plainly absurd. Bird migration is one area in which the reality is more fascinating and remarkable than the myth. Science, rather than reducing romantic notions to mundane facts is proving that bird migration is more amazing than we’d ever dreamt possible. But how can talk of migrant birds from Africa be relevant in the middle of winter?

Are swallows a sign of Spring?

Are swallows a sign of spring?

The answer to the last question is that while we may think of February as winter, to birds and other wildlife we are well into spring. Indeed, warm fronts on 7th February 2004 saw a scattering of swallows as well as small groups of house martins and even the odd yellow wagtail on the south coast of England, a good two months earlier than usual! This was an extreme event but it was only an outlier of a general trend towards many of our migrants arriving earlier. A study in Guernsey (Sparks, 2007) showed that the mean arrival dates of many of our sub-Saharan migrants has shifted substantially between the periods of 1903-1945 and recent years of 1985-2005. In the latter period swallows arrived 16 days, wheatears and willow warblers 18 days, house martins 27 days and sand martins an incredible 36 days earlier.

“None though are as celebrated as the cuckoo, which for over a century has prompted a letter to the editor of The Times.”

Some of our migrants are greeted with great fanfare whilst some slip into the country without causing much of  a stir. The first returnees such as sand martins, wheatears and chiffchaffs are probably only noticed by the keener birdwatcher. Swallows, house martins and swifts on the other hand are familiar birds and are eagerly anticipated. None though are as celebrated as the cuckoo, which for over a century has prompted a letter to the editor of The Times. The promise of warmer weather is probably the primary reason we look forward to the return of these birds so much.

It’s always interesting to see what sparks a welcome in other countries and perverse to think that in Iceland the birds that are eagerly anticipated are those that spend the winter with us. Pink-footed goose, whooper swan and redwing are seen as signs of spring there. The golden plover is said to arrive in Iceland to push away the snow. In Lithuania it’s starlings that are celebrated as the herald of spring. Nestboxes are made ready for their arrival , the swirling masses that entertain us throughout the winter at iconic roosts on piers and bridges hail from there, the low countries and even as far as Russia!

“A swift was tracked from Liberia to England in only five days, averaging 25mph over its 3000 mile journey.”

As mentioned earlier, science continues to inform us of the wonders of migration. Ringing studies have shown just how far birds go and have revealed interesting movements of birds that were previously thought of as sedentary, such as starlings, robins and blackbirds. Rather than relying on the chance recapture of birds that were previously marked, cutting-edge technology is now telling the story. Data loggers and satellite tracking systems are becoming forever smaller and lightweight and are now being fitted to the slightest of songbirds and revealing remarkable insights.

Swallow in flight

Swallow in flight

The British Trust for Ornithology has been tracking the fortunes of cuckoos on their migration from here to Africa and back and keeping us all updated with the latest news. A swift was tracked from Liberia to England in only five days, averaging 25mph over its 3000 mile journey. Undoubtedly the most incredible feat though was performed by a bar-tailed godwit. These waders breed right across the high Arctic, some spend the winter in Britain or pass through on the way to and from the tundra. One bird, with the rather unromantic moniker of E7, was tracked travelling from Alaska to New Zealand. A distance of 7145 miles, that was achieved at an average speed of nearly 35 miles per hour on a non-stop flight of a little over 8 days!

Social media is another modern advance which is helping us to track our migrant birds. As I write, with snow swirling outside the window, an old acquaintance on Twitter is reporting swallows streaming north over his adopted home in Tanzania. So give a thought on this February morning to our harbingers of spring. They are already on their way!

  • Peter Brash is a wildlife and countryside advisor for the National Trust. He specialises in animal ecology; specifically birds, insects and bats. As well as the surveying of habitats, wildlife interpretation and engagement. 
  • The Weekly Witter is a new regular Monday morning mouthpiece for our many specialists to talk about what’s on their minds at the moment.