A mixed year for our wildlife – but which species were nature’s winners and losers in 2014?
- Credit: Archant
2014 brought mixed fortunes for East Anglia's wildlife and, in a region which is naturally abundant in wild places and farmland habitats, there have been some stand-out moments – both good and bad – during the last 12-month cycle of the seasons.
Although there has been a long-term decline in many farmland bird species, 2014 has been recognised as a good year for farming and conservation working together to reverse those trends.
In The Broads, grazing management of wet grassland has been helping lapwings return to the countryside in increasing numbers. The RSPB also reported the highest-ever numbers of breeding lapwings this summer at three reserves on the Suffolk coast
In The Brecks, stone curlews have recovered from two bad breeding seasons, which was attributed to a combination of good weather and sensitive farming practices. The population of the species in the area fell by 20% in 2013, but this year's improved weather saw the number of breeding pairs up to 240 by the end of the summer.
Rupert Masefield, communications officer for the RSPB in Eastern England, said: 'This year, the work of farmers in Norfolk to help birds and wildlife in the farmed landscape has made the headlines more than once and the success they have had shows that the twin aims of food production and wildlife conservation can be achieved through the mechanism of agri-environment schemes.
'Farmers have also been rallying to the aid of one of our most iconic Christmas birds, the turtle dove – ironically, a bird which can rarely be seen at Christmas in the UK, is regarded as the herald of summer and has usually left us to fly south for the winter by September.
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'Pensthorpe Conservation Trust has been trialling seed mixtures to see which works best for turtle doves to help inform conservation measures, giving hope for the future of this rapidly disappearing bird.'
It has also been a good year for bees. Again, the good weather has played its part, but the new National Pollinator Strategy announced by Environment Secretary and South West Norfolk MP Elizabeth Truss won praise from conservation organisations including Buglife and the RSPB, and the National Beekeepers Association reported that honey bees in Britain have produced their best crop in five years.
Longer-term patterns in bird populations have been published this week in the 2014 BirdTrends report, produced by the Thetford-based British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). The survey identified recent national increases for barn owls (+277%), red kites (+805%), the non-native ring-necked parakeet (+1060%) and little egrets (+1666%) since 1995.
Among the species which have suffered in 2014 was the UK's largest colony of little terns, at Winterton, which was hit by devastating high tides and strong winds in July, killing hundreds of the nesting birds.
About 15% of the UK's breeding little terns were nesting at this one site, and the RSPB said this unfortunate event highlighted the need for more suitable nesting sites to be managed to help the reproductive success of the birds.
Some long distance migrants have also suffered. The BTO reported the numbers of birds, including several species of warbler, recorded returning to the UK to breed after spending the winter in Sub-Saharan Africa was down again this year.
It is thought this could be a reflection of poor recruitment following a disastrous breeding season in 2012 and a mixed breeding season in 2013, or to conditions on the African wintering grounds.
More widely, the impact of last winter's storm surge was felt up and down the Norfolk coast by its wildlife inhabitants as well as by coastal communities. RSPB's Snettisham and Titchwell nature reserves were both hit, and only recently completed coastal realignment work at Titchwell saved the freshwater reedbeds and wildlife within.
Mr Masefield said: 'To take something positive from a bad news story, we did learn a lot from the storm surge. We learned that we need to adapt our ideas about protecting coastal wildlife to the realities of a changing environment, and that nature itself can play a part in protecting us from the sea, with salt marshes, sand dunes and shingle banks all acting as natural sea defences as well as being valuable wildlife habitats.'
Over the long-term, the steepest populations declines measured by the BTO are for turtle dove, tree sparrow, snipe, willow tit and grey partridge, which have all declined by 90% or more since 1967. Turtle doves show the biggest long-term decline of any species in this week's BirdTrends 2014 report, overtaking the tree sparrow which, following earlier rapid decline, has increased strongly since 1994.
Away from the countryside, the BTO's report reveals that while intensive conservation efforts and targeted habitat management have benefited some rarer UK bird species, many widespread and formerly common garden birds are in severe decline.
Senior research fellow Dr Stephen Baillie said: 'National declines in farmland birds are well-documented and these latest figures show that this decrease is continuing. The results of BTO surveys show that many familiar garden birds are also experiencing problems.
'House sparrow numbers have dropped by almost 70% since the 1960s and the data suggest that sparrows occupying urban and suburban habitats are faring worst.'
WHERE TO SEE SOME WINTER WILDLIFE...
Just because hedgehogs and bees are hibernating, it doesn't mean all our wildlife has gone into hiding. Lots of birds can only be seen in the winter, when they come to Britain to escape the freezing temperatures of their Arctic breeding grounds. So when you need an escape from the eating, drinking and merrymaking, there are plenty of places to go for a special winter wildlife experience.
• Strumpshaw Fen:
As Norwich's local nature reserve, just seven miles from the city on the western-most edge of The Broads, Strumpshaw is the perfect place to see bitterns and marsh harriers – and otters, which have been seen regularly this year. Bring the family and let the children loose on the Winter Backpack Challenge, explore the discovery zone, test their bird-spotting skills using the RSPB's binoculars and round it all off with a seasonal scavenger hunt.
• Horsey Beach:
If you've never seen seals in the wild, this is the time to do it. Thousands of grey seals spend the winter in a vast colony on the beach and sand dunes at Horsey, north of Great Yarmouth. Visitors are reminded to make sure they keep a safe distance from the seals, as the young pups can be abandoned by their mothers if disturbed.
Snettisham nature reserve is on the southern edge of The Wash, one of Europe's most important wetlands and a Special Area of Conservation to which hundreds of thousands of waders and waterfowl flock every winter to roost and feed on the intertidal mud flats.
One of the highlights is 100,000 pink-footed geese honking as they fly overhead at dawn, making for the field where they graze during the day before returning to The Wash at dusk. The wildlife-watching hides at Snettisham are perfect to witness this and other amazing winter wildlife scenes, like knots rising into the air in unison, spooked by a passing peregrine.
With work completed to reinforce the wall protecting Titchwell's precious redbeeds from the sea, now is the time to visit. Bitterns make their home amongst the reeds, with more arriving for the winter, and marsh harriers hang in the air overhead hunting for food. The new Parrinder hide offers great views over the reserve.
• The Brecks:
To get a taste of The Brecks' unique habitats and wildlife, including the weird and wonderful stone curlew, head to Norfolk Wildlife Trust's Weeting Heath nature reserve. The Brecks is home to rare grass heathland, the largest lowland forest in the UK, wildlife-rich farmland and unusual wetlands, spanning nearly 1,000 square kilometres across Norfolk and North Suffolk. More than 13,000 species have been recorded in the area, so there's no shortage of creatures to discover on a walk through woods or heath.