The one-day conference on “A Better Future for Devon’s Birds” was jointly organised by the DPA and Devon Birds. 220 delegates packed the Exeter racecourse conference centre to hear about the current state of Devon’s birds from national and local experts – and most importantly what we can do to reverse the declines.
We heard first from Stella Beavan and Mike Lock, editors of the new Devon Bird Atlas, which will be published in the New Year. This painstaking work updates the Sitters Devon Bird Atlas of thirty years ago which is the baseline for what has happened in Devon. In summary, there have been 11 species gains (mostly water birds); 34 species are increasing ( including the raven, and the siskin); and 52 have shown no change. But there is no ground for complacency; 60 species show significant decreases and there have been 9 losses from Devon, including the nightingale, black grouse, tree sparrow and corn bunting. Amongst the decreases are the kingfisher and lapwing.
Stephen Moss is one of Britain’s leading nature writers, a broadcaster and wildlife TV producer. In his keynote speech, Stephen drew attention to the sheer speed of change; the once common corn bunting has gone from Devon and Somerset. Other birds, like the cuckoo, has declined by 72% and is concentrated on areas like Dartmoor. Food is the key requirement for birds. The supply is diminishing thanks to changed agricultural practices, including the cessation of haymaking in favour of multiple cuts of silage; autumn ploughing which removes stubble as a source of seed; overuse of herbicides and pesticides and excessive hedge trimming at the wrong time of year. There are also other pressures impacting some birds; climate change, human disturbance, recreational pressures and dogs in the breeding season.
Stephen called on the audience to tell those in power – the politicians and vested interests – that we are fed up with the vandalisation of the countryside. Looking after wildlife is good for people and places, and also for the businesses in those places.
Martin Harper is Director of Conservation at the RSPB. He said the Devon picture mirrored the national scene; 60% of species in decline over 40 years, with one in ten at risk of extinction. More extensive management of agricultural land would have some good effects (but the policy of government and industry was the “sustainable intensification of agriculture”). Martin concentrated on five case studies where the RSPB has targeted individual species.
The cirl bunting recovery project has been running for over 20 years in Devon, with over 200 farms and some 10,000 hectares of land in the scheme. Changing the sowing season has been outstandingly successful in multiplying the cirl bunting populations. The Manx shearwater is an endangered species vulnerable to predation in its breeding burrows. Removing rats from Lundy has resulted in a ten fold increase. The Dartford warbler is an example of a bird that will be affected by climate change. It is expected to quit the Iberian peninsular and colonise the southern half of Britain, but its habitat is scarce heathland. The ring ouzel is also expected to move north, leaving southern Britain. There is a ring ouzel project on the fringes of Dartmoor including some exclusion fencing. Finally Martin used the example of the Wood warbler, which spends 8 months out of the country, to illustrate that the RSPB has to be involved in what is happening in large parts of the world outside the UK.
Kevin Bishop CEO of the DNPA spoke about the purposes of the National Park, and the pressures on Dartmoor. He was in no doubt that preserving bio-diversity was essential and that Dartmoor should be a sanctuary for nature and landscape beauty. Traditional farming practices had created the landscape fit for designation as a National Park. Farming communities and local heritage were important, as were the needs of visitors and recreation users. There had been a 7% increase in the population living within a 45 minute drive of Dartmoor in a decade; about 21,000 new homes were planned within a 20 minute drive of the Park.
Almost 70% of the surface area of Dartmoor was covered by some form of agri-environment scheme, but there were question marks over their effectiveness. There should be more focus on outcomes, and paying for results, rather than simply setting prescriptions which were not monitored. The budget for renewing schemes was under pressure; a smaller proportion of Dartmoor would be covered in future and some farmers might turn their backs on the available schemes.
John Varley is CEO of Clinton Devon Estates, a large farming and forestry enterprise in East and Mid Devon. He is also a Natural England Board member. Responsible stewardship was at the heart of the Estate’s strategy, with a Nature Conservation Manager as part of the team. The East Devon Pebblebed Heaths have 148 species of bird, including Dartford warbler and nightjar. John said it was the responsibility of business to do the right thing with ambitious landscape planning. There was great scope for the different sectors to work together, public, private and the third sector. Long term government policies were needed, including more targeted agri-environment schemes.
Harry Barton, CEO of the Devon Wildlife Trust, said that only 30% of Devon’s SSSIs were in favourable condition, and 34% of the County Wildlife Sites. The Trust had about 50 Nature Reserves in the county, including Emsworthy near Haytor. He was not an advocate of “re-wilding” but taking our hands off the reins a little could be beneficial. At Emsworthy they had recorded 24 bird species that were on the “red list”. The most important thing done in terms of management was to fence off this mire and moorland habitat.
Simon Lyster is Chairman of World Land Trust, and a Board member of Natural England. Despite all the public investment in farming and agri-environment it appeared that we were not turning back the downward graph on wildlife. So the question was, What can we do differently? He suggested we needed to look at some radical new incentives. A minority of farmers were doing the right thing, but did they get enough recognition? Could we use the planning system, particularly in National Parks, to match long term commitment to sensitive farming and bio-diversity with a more sympathetic attitude to housing for the next generation of farmers? Was there a case for looking at tax breaks for landowners involved in conservation, similar to the tax concessions for agriculture? And could farmers who were contracted into delivering environmental public goods be relieved of some of the bureaucracy and regulation afflicting agriculture?
Malcolm Burgess is a conservation scientist at Exeter University specialising in research into migration behaviour using new miniaturised tracking technology. There were still large gaps in our knowledge about the locations and length of stay of many of our migratory birds, but it seemed that about threequarters of our migrants from the humid zone of Africa were in decline. “Our” cuckoo spent 15% of its time in the UK; 38% en route and 47% in the Congo. However cuckoos were doing well in Scotland, perhaps connected with different migration routes.
Professor Charles Tyler is a bioscientist at Exeter University with a special interest in ground nesting birds on Dartmoor. With others, he has been studying three main species; the whinchat has declined by 52% in Devon; the Meadow Pipit by 44% and the Stonechat by 16%. His group has accummulated evidence of the breeding patterns of these birds. The stonechat breeding season starts early, and before the end of the official swaling period (31 March); whereas the whinchat is a later breeder and is at risk from bracken control measures in June and July.
Summing up the discussions which had enthralled the 220 strong audience, Kevin Cox, Vice Chair of Devon Birds, said the new Devon Bird Atlas must become the start of a better time for Devon’s birds, not a Doomsday book. He suggested three themes to take away: we needed more and better evidence of what was happening; we needed to embrace partnership between all the interested parties which alone can deliver practical conservation benefits, and we needed to communicate our passion to everyone we came into contact with.
The DPA is proud to have been joint organisers of what we believe will be a landmark conference. We will be working with Devon Birds and others to build a lasting legacy.