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This bird has flown and more are at risk of leaving; Wildlife author Ray Armstrong says the Government must take urgent action to protect and promote biodiversity before birdsong is replaced by a deafening silence.

Byline: Ray Armstrong

WHEN Time to Stare, my personal overview of 25 years of watching wildlife on the Trellech Plateau, was published in 2005 I expressed concern regarding the decline and long-term survival of some of the birds of the area - but I never foresaw the dramatic decline that has occurred in the five years since.

Walking round the area in 2009 and 2010, the lack of birdsong was frightening; it caused me to reflect on what it must be like to lose your hearing, all those magical sounds gone forever. The silence was deafening.

Many of the species that I highlighted in my book as in decline, namely the grey partridge, little owl, lesser spotted woodpecker, lesser whitethroat, pied flycatcher, redstart, reed bunting, spotted flycatcher, turtle dove, whinchat, willow tit and yellow wagtail, now appear to be absent - 12 species lost!

Ten more species - the cuckoo, curlew, green woodpecker, kestrel, lapwing, swift, tree sparrow, skylark, wood warbler and yellowhammer - appear on the brink of being lost to the area.

A further 19 species - the bullfinch, chaffinch, common chiffchaff, common whitethroat, starling, crossbill, dunnock, garden warbler, goldcrest, greenfinch, house martin, house sparrow, lesser redpoll, linnet, mistle thrush, swallow, siskin, tree pipit and willow warbler - have also suffered significant losses. I would add that the siskin and crossbill are subject to irruptive behaviour (migrating to an area in large numbers).

The only birds that appear to be thriving are the nest-robbing carrion crow, magpie and jay. Their numbers have increased.

The area under discussion, the Trellech Plateau, is 215m above sea level, rising to 311m above sea level on the eastern edge overlooking the picturesque Wye Valley. The area consists of mixed farmland and Forestry Commission woodland which hide a variety of habitats.

Owing to its natural topography it has a climate of its own. Temperature swings can be extreme and being subject to all the prevailing winds, the conditions can be particularly hostile for small passerines [perching birds, including all songbirds].

Consequently when we have wet, cold springs as we have experienced in recent years, many of the "local" resident bird population will probably seek a more benign environment, in this particular instance at lower altitudes and the incoming summer migrants will respond likewise. Recent cold springs have resulted in breeding failures with failed and smaller broods, Great tits feeding their young on bumble bees has been a familiar sight.

Signifying that due to these changing weather patterns their breeding cycle is either becoming out of sync with the emergence of their main food source, caterpillars, or there are reduced numbers of Lepidoptera larva, I have thought for some time that the bird losses in the area appeared to be more severe than normal and considered this to be due to the added effect of the local harsh climate.

It is only natural that, as overall bird numbers decrease, those areas that experience the harsher climatic conditions will show the species loss first.

The virtual loss of the lapwing is particularly poignant; it is the iconic farmland bird. One of the most evocative signs of spring over farmland is the rolling, tumbling aerial display of a singing male lapwing.

On broad, rounded wings, he climbs, rolls and falls as if out of control, all the time emitting a rhythmic, wheezy song. I am aware of only two pairs in the area this year; 30 years ago they were common.

We also appear to have lost the turtle dove; this area was its last tenuous foothold in Wales, its presence highlighted by a soft purring song.

Following heath restoration work by the Forestry Commission there has been a couple of pluses in recent years. We have had the first recorded breeding of wood lark in Wales for 25 years and the first recorded breeding of stonechats in the area for at least 30 years.

Nearly all of the species I have mentioned have suffered significant national losses over the last 40 years or so, some greater than 50%. This reduction in passerine numbers, both resident species and summer migrants, has never received the same funding or urgent action as applied to the losses and reintroduction of the more spectacular birds.

The reasons for these losses include climate change, habitat loss, destruction of field margins, reseeding of old pastures and overuse of pesticides and herbicides.

Climatic changes are particularly damaging to summer migrants, causing food shortages and drought on their winter feeding grounds. Certain migrant species experience further losses due to shooting and trapping in some European countries.

Much good work is being carried out by conservation bodies and their armies of volunteers but these ongoing programmes of regeneration, are not happening fast enough.

The real problem is that these days we do not like making decisions that might offend somebody - the combination of committees and consensus politics rarely solve anything.

We need some rapid decision making and then get on and implement them, but we have to accept there will be a financial cost. Studies show that in many eastern and southern European countries where low-intensity agriculture is practised, bird losses are significantly less.

Do we have to wait until they experience the same losses as the UK before anything is done? If we do we will have little left to save! The Government needs to rock the European boat and take a much more independent and decisive role to protect our biodiversity if we are to have any real chance of arresting this spectacular decline.

Within such programmes more attention has to be paid to the management of hedges, field margins and roadside verges - they are the highways of the animal world.

Thick hedges are absolutely vital to thrushes, finches and other songbirds - no safe nest sites, no future! In my opinion the overuse of hedge cutting machines devastates the hedges and stunts regrowth.

What these observations highlight very graphically is the seriousness of this species loss and how quickly they can accelerate. A good analogy for these losses is to liken them to the drying up of a pond; all that is left before it finally dries out are a number of small puddles, except in this case it will be a number of small oases of wildlife, the thought of such a scenario is frightening.

Is this to be our legacy for following generations?


The little owl is one of the birds that no longer lives on Trellech Plateau, near Monmouth, fears wildlife author Ray Armstrong
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Jan 4, 2011
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