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The GNS ‘Curlew Meadows’ project

For many years now studies of breeding waders have been carried out in the Severn estuary and up the Severn and Avon Vales. The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) organised its first survey of Breeding Waders in Wet Meadows in 1981, with a repeat in 2002, while there was an extensive study led by Jim Quinn from Slimbridge in 1995.  I was involved in organizing the 2002 BTO study in both Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, and for most summers since then have tried to gather data from the whole area, including estuarine sites like Aylburton Warth and Guscar Rocks, the New Grounds at Slimbridge and Frampton, through inland riverine wetlands like Walmore Marsh, the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust (GWT) reserves at Coombe Hill Meadows and Ashleworth Ham or Longdon Marsh in Worcestershire, to the many former gravel extraction areas in Worcestershire at Ripple, Clifton and Grimley along the Severn, or Lower Moor along the Avon. The results have been published as articles in the annual bird report, and have of course contributed to the 2013 “Birds of Gloucestershire”.

Curlew nest

The principal wader species involved historically were Lapwing, Snipe, Curlew and Redshank; in recent years three new breeding waders have joined them: Avocet, Oystercatcher and Little Ringed Plover. Snipe presents the saddest story, since its wonderful drumming display has totally disappeared from the Severn and Avon Vales since 2003 (though there are still viable breeding populations in the Somerset Levels and at Otmoor in Oxfordshire); Lapwing and Redshank hang on in greatly diminished numbers. Whereas these three species require quite damp conditions, Curlews breed in slightly drier habitats, generally on hay meadows in the floodplain, and their breeding numbers seem to have been maintained rather better in the Vales. Nevertheless, there has been general recognition of a decline in breeding Curlew numbers right across northwest Europe, from Finland to Ireland, and the species figures on the IUCN Red List. In December 2015 a highly significant article in the journal ‘British Birds’ suggested that Curlew numbers had decreased so sharply (mainly through poor production of chicks) that Curlew was probably the most important bird conservation in the UK, because just over 25% of the world population nests in UK, while another 25% comes from northwest Europe to winter in UK.

In December 2015, it was decided, at a meeting held at the headquarters of the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust (GWT), with participants from Natural England, the Gloucestershire and Worcestershire Wildlife Trusts, BTO, the North Cotswold Ornithological Society (which has since amalgamated with GNS) – not forgetting of course GNS itself – to organize in 2016 a survey of breeding Curlews covering not only the Severn and Avon Vales, but also sites on the Cotswolds, where a small number of breeding Curlew still survive. Those surprised by the idea of breeding Curlews in the Cotswolds may remember the reading at the opening of the GWT’s reserve at Crickley Hill (formerly a County Council reserve) of the Gloucestershire poet Ivor Gurney’s poem “Crickley Hill”:

High above Gloucester and the Severn plain,
Few come there, where ever and again
The Curlew cries faintly.

The 2016 survey was carried out by volunteer observers, and succeeded in finding 30-35 pairs, 16 to 20 of them along the Severn, with 14 to 15 along the Avon. In addition, three pairs were found on the Cotswold sites in Gloucestershire and three or four pairs on higher ground away from the valleys in Worcestershire. Of the 30-35 pairs in the Severn and Avon Vales, six were definitely successful in producing fledged chicks and two more were perhaps successful; 18-22 pairs failed and the outcome of four to five nests was uncertain. During the 2016 field season, contacts were made with other groups working on breeding Curlews in southern England, and in particular with Mary Colwell, who that year had made a 500 mile ‘Walk for Curlews’ which took her from the Republic of Ireland, through Northern Ireland and north Wales right across central England to Lincolnshire; her book “Curlew Moon” recounts her adventures during her walk, with many examples of Curlews in literature and folklore. She highlights the dramatic situation in Ireland where the number of breeding Curlews has crashed from many thousands to less than 200 pairs. Through Mary’s efforts, a first ever all-Irish Curlew meeting was held in November 2016, and led to the creation of an official Task Force to remedy the situation.

In the United Kingdom a major RSPB five year project is investigating the reason for the decline in breeding Curlew numbers at six trial management sites in Scotland, northern England, north Wales and Northern Ireland; but all the trial sites are in the uplands: what of our small remaining populations in lowland sites? During 2016, we realised that there were lowland sites, similar to those in the Gloucestershire and Worcestershire vales, in the Somerset Levels, the Thames Valley, the New Forest, Salisbury Plain, north Wiltshire, Herefordshire, each with a maximum of 30 or 40 pairs, hanging on in the face of habitat change, agricultural activities, predation by foxes, crows and badgers; what was being done to conserve these small remaining populations, highly valued not just by naturalists, but by farmers and landowners, local people, all those with an appreciation of the wildness and special characters of the Curlew? In order to focus on lowland Curlews a workshop under the title “Call of the Curlew” was hosted at the headquarters of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust at Slimbridge on World Wetlands Day, 2 February 2017, with presentations by observers of all these local Curlew populations, but also with the participation of national bodies like the BTO, Natural England and many local naturalists and the farming community. The conclusions were: it is important to maintain not just overall numbers of breeding Curlews, but the broad distribution over southern England; surveys like those in 2016 should be continued, and there should be greater exchanges of information between surveys in different parts of the lowlands. To ensure that the momentum was not lost a very informal body called the ‘Curlew Forum’ was established, and a special website was established at the address www.curlewcall.org ; (this website has been funded since its inception by GNS). The website carries regular reports on Curlew surveys in the different breeding areas on the lowlands, plus news and views of all kinds relating to lowland Curlews. Please take a look!

Ringing

In 2017 therefore a renewed survey was carried out in the Severn and Avon Vales, this time with Natural England generously covering the travel costs of the volunteer observers.  Detailed results are available on the www.curlewcall.org website, but in summary 31-32 pairs were found, a similar number to 2016, but only three young birds were known to have fledged. Some of the regular breeding sites are at places like the Severn Ham at Tewkesbury or Upton Ham in Worcestershire, which are widely used by ramblers, joggers and dog-walkers from the neighbouring towns; GNS provided the funding to erect signs at Tewkesbury and Upton, inviting Curlew lovers to encourage successful nesting by keeping to footpaths and maintaining dogs under close control and these were in general well respected; since then similar signs have also been erected at Coombe Hill, at Twyning and at Asham Meadows near Eckington. In 2017 too, greater emphasis was placed on habitats, with botanical surveys of the hay meadows where most birds nested, in an attempt to obtain more precise information on exactly what areas were being used by the Curlew; while some of these meadows are of very high botanical value, it often turned out that the Curlews chose spots in the hay meadows with lower vegetation, where water remained a little longer and any young Curlews hatching would not be lost in very high, luxuriant vegetation. In addition there were surveys by the Gloucestershire Invertebrates Group at several of the major nesting sites to identify the insects present in the grassland, and to identify the availability of insect food for young Curlews which feed themselves on hay meadow insects almost as soon as they have hatched.

 

Putting up signs at Upton

Putting up signs at Upton

The exchanges with other groups studying Curlews in lowland England made us reflect on our basic approach to the question: hitherto we had been monitoring presence of breeding Curlews, and judging the success or failure of the nesting attempts by observing the behaviour of the adults or, if possible, the presence of fledged chicks. We had not actively searched for nests (a difficult enough proposition in the long, lush grass of the hay meadows where they normally nest). But did this mean that we were just monitoring extinction? Other groups (notably the very active Shropshire ‘Curlew Country’ project) were much more oriented towards protection measures – finding nests, protecting them from predators by erecting electric fences around the nests, working closely with farmers to avoid nests being damaged during hay-making operations. At a GNS Committee Meeting during 2017, the Treasurer suggested that some of the Society’s funds, accumulated through generous legacies from members, should be used to support a more adventurous ‘Curlew Meadows’ project providing ringing equipment, electric fencing, and even raising of chicks in captivity; this would also be a new approach from the financial point of view, since most GNS projects involved relatively small sums of money for purchase of specialist equipment. For once we could be more ambitious, and this might provide an example for other larger projects.

Example of a hay meadow where Curlew nest

In 2018, as a result, the approach was different: the aim was to find and protect nests, to take some eggs from wild birds (with of course the proper authorizations from Natural England) and to raise the chicks in captivity before releasing them in the wild, and to ring as many wild birds as possible with colour rings, so that they could be identified in the field. Alas, the best laid plans o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley: the weather in 2018 was absolutely disastrous for nesting Curlews in the Severn and Avon Vales. To begin with, there were two major floods, one in March, one in April; the birds returned to their traditional nesting fields (they are known to be highly site-faithful, nesting year after year on the same field, sometimes in the same spot), but found them under several feet of water, once in mid-March, then again in mid-April; the breeding season was thus delayed by several weeks, and then, even worse, there was a six week heatwave in late May and June which absolutely burnt the grass and probably limited insect food. Despite the best efforts of the four principal observers (Juliet Bailey, Mervyn Greening, Andy Jayne and Mike Smart), no nests were found; indeed it was strongly suspected that many birds abandoned the attempt to nest. So there was no opportunity of protecting nests with electric fences, nor of raising chicks from wild eggs in an aviary provided by a sympathetic farmer. The hot conditions meant that farmers cut their hay early to save it from drying completely, often by mid or late June, whereas the young birds need cover into July. Once again, 34 to 36 pairs of Curlews were thought to be holding territory; it was at first thought that not a single chick had been raised in the vales in 2018; just one family of two chicks aged 14 days was colour-ringed, but were not seen to fly; it was thought that they had perished, but in April 2019 one of them was seen and its colour-coded ring read on the Camel estuary in Cornwall, so at least one survived.

Hay meadow with meadowsweet

Natural England, which had once again covered travel costs in 2018 for the four main observers, recognised the work of the four GNS members by giving each of them a West Midlands Conservation Award; other awards went to volunteer groups and to conservation-conscious farmers. It should be emphasized that the GNS volunteers have aimed throughout the course of the project to work as closely as possible with farmers and land-owners. Survival of the Curlew as a breeding species in the vales depends on maintaining the current traditional extensive agricultural system, based on a hay crop with grazing by cattle (or often, nowadays, sheep) once the hay has been cut. In the long run the aim must be to adapt current practice to the needs of the birds – by late cutting, by leaving areas where the birds are nesting uncut until after fledging, ultimately by amending farming subsidies to reward farmers on whose land Curlews prosper. It is a pleasure to acknowledge the willing cooperation the GNS team has met from so many farmers.

At the end of the 2018 season, a comprehensive report was submitted to for Natural England, documenting in detail the findings from 2015 to 2018, and identifying the prime sites where Curlews traditionally nest. This should form a basis for future work in the area on nesting Curlews. Also in 2018, further meetings devoted to lowland Curlews (like those in Ireland and at Slimbridge) have been held in Wales (at the Royal Welsh Agricultural Showground in Builth Wells in January) and Scotland (at the Battleby Conference Centre near Perth, under the title “Whaup’s Up?”); the Curlew Forum and its website go from strength to strength. Already, there have been major developments in 2019. The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust at Slimbridge has decided to embark on a ‘Severn Curlew Project’ involving continuation of the field surveys and active conservation measures initiated by GNS, and a major operation using their traditional avicultural expertise to raise young Curlews from eggs; the eggs have been sourced from wild nests on East Anglian airfields, where the nests would otherwise have been destroyed to prevent bird-strikes. WWT and GNS plan to continue to work together to promote the success of this operation. Another valuable outcome has been the increased recognition of the botanical value of the hayfields along the Severn and Avon, through cooperation between GNS, the Floodplain Meadows Partnership, Natural England and the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group; it is hoped that this may lead to increased conservation measures (perhaps designation of new or extended Sites of Special Scientific Interest) in these very rich riverine meadows. And there has even been a lowland Curlew Summit at 10 Downing Street, with the aim of defining measures to reverse the decline of breeding Curlews throughout lowland areas of the United Kingdom.

Mike Smart
August 2019


Butterfly Backsides

Here is a selection of less than perfect photos of butterflies currently using my Buddleia. With the warm weather and fuelled-up on nectar they don’t stay still for very long in the perfect open position, but perhaps closed or half-closed is the view that most people will get of them.
Painted Lady – star of the show in great abundance this year. In flight, the general impression is of an apricot coloured butterfly.

Painted Lady

When perched with its wings folded the Painted Lady shows pretty pale stone-coloured mottling on the reverse of the hind wing with a dusty band of apricot and flecks of black and white on the upper wing.

Painted Lady

Red Admiral – very handsome black with brilliant red and white and a highlight of blue. On the reverse, the bottom wing is dark but there is dull red, white and blue on the upper wing.

Red Admiral

Peacock – when the wings are open it is basically orange with big eye-spot discs on the top and bottom wings. With the wings folded these disappear and it looks almost black, unlike the Painted Lady and Red Admiral which are still moderately colourful on the underwing.

Peacock

Peacock

Small Tortoiseshell – this butterfly is a little smaller than the previous three and when open is a brick red with black, white, red and yelllow blocks, rimmed on the edge with little blue beads. With folded wings it is the dark brown of a dead leaf.

Two Small Tortoiseshells with Painted Lady

Comma – another smaller butterfly the same sort of size as the Small Tortoiseshell, this butterfly is ginger orange, and its characteristic when perched from either view point is the scalloped edge to the wings as if something has been taking bites out of it, which is much more pronounced than the other species. I did not stay long enough to get a photo of one perched on Buddleia flower.

Comma

Small White – there are three possible Whites on the Buddleia – Small, Large and Green Veined. This is Small White. It is about the size of the Small Tortoiseshell whereas Large is the size of the Peacock etc. The perspective in the photo is giving the wrong impression, the white butterfly is closer than the other two. Green Veined would show dingy dark lines (the so-called green veins) on the reverse of the wings. The wings here are a relatively unmarked white/yellow, hence it is Small White.

Small White in middle with Peacock (L) and Painted Lady (R)


Tudor Birds of Prey Day – Saturday 17 August

Organiser John Moore Museum
Date Saturday 17th August 2019
Time Four sessions to choose from:
10.00am to 11.15am
11.45am to 1pm
2pm to 3.15pm
3.45pm to 5pm
Venue John Moore Museum, 41 Church Street, Tewkesbury, GL20 5SN
Details Falconry was an incredibly popular sport in Tudor times and was enjoyed by all social classes.  If you were rich, a beautiful, big and rare bird could be a status symbol to help display your wealth, provide you with sport, and secure you another interesting dish to serve at your table.  If you were poor, a goshawk could help you feed your family.  The hawks had to be used to people, and for this reason people carried them everywhere.   At a time when it was the height of bad manners to take your dog into dinner with you, hawking treatises advised owners to keep their birds on their fist at the table.

Henry VIII was a keen falconer and Anne Boleyn even had a crowned white falcon as part of her badge.  The Heraldic meaning of the Falcon/Hawk is One who does not rest until objective achieved and is often found on the coats of arms of kings and nobles.

Visit the museum and learn how important birds of prey were to the Tudors, plus you’ll meet a Kestrel, a Buzzard, a Peregrine Falcon, a Barn Owl, an Eagle Owl and a Little Owl.

A costumed falconer from Midlands-based J.R.C.S Falconry will tell you all about these amazing creatures, the ancient art of falconry and answer all your questions.

This is an ideal activity for families and especially those with children studying the Tudors at school.

Tickets:
Adults £6.00 / Seniors & Students £4.50 / Children £2
(Tickets include admission to the John Moore Museum & The Old Baptist Chapel).

Notes for editors Contact: Simon Lawton (Curator) – very happy to give interviews
E-Mail: curator@johnmooremuseum.org
Website: www.johnmooremuseum.org
Telephone: 01684 297174

Open Day – Prinknash Monastery Walled Garden – 7th August

Open Day with Activities for Children at Prinknash Monastery Walled Garden

Stroud Valleys Project will be holding an open day at Prinknash Monastery Walled Garden on Wednesday 7 August 10.30am – 3pm. Stroud Valleys Project have been working at the Prinknash Monastery Walled Garden for 6 months now and this is a superb opportunity to see all the great work that’s been done.

At the open day, Stroud Valleys Project volunteers will be working in the walled butterfly garden and will be joined by Butterfly Conservation (https://butterfly-conservation.org/) and Back from the Brink (https://naturebftb.co.uk/), and together we will answer all your questions on butterflies, plants and conservation. There will be activities for children and the monastery café will be open for lunch, drinks and cakes. It all promises to be a great event for the family.

This is a free event (just show up on the day) but donations are very welcome indeed.

Prinknash is off the A46, the road between Stroud and Cheltenham.


Launch of the Life Map in Gloucestershire – 23 April

On 23rd April 2019 at 2:30pm in the Collaborative Lecture Theatre, Oxstalls Business School, University of Gloucestershire we will be holding the launch of The Life Map for Gloucestershire as part of a programme of events across the UK.

The Life Map is able to provide information about the Sustainable Life Indicators and we will be presenting the base information regarding Life on Land. The Life Map is able to identify the resources for which each Community is responsible, how these resources can be assessed, and how achievements can be acknowledged. The Life Map provides the explanation as to why the bird counts for Gloucestershire are so important.

The Life on Land material provides a foundation for managing clean air, clean water & food and acts as a precedent for other Indicators addressing other land uses and the quality of human life (see further information attached).

Tickets (no charge) can be obtained by registering at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/national-launch-of-the-life-map-tickets-58424592529. Location details are available on the weblink and in the attached invitation.


The Beetles of Gloucestershire – Index now available

An index to The Beetles of Gloucestershire, by Keith Alexander has been compiled by Guy Meredith and is now available for download, either here or from the Publications page.

Three versions are available in different formats: the 2 column version is 8pt Times New Roman font (45 sides of A4), the 3 column version is 8pt Arial Narrow (30 sides), and the 4 column is 6pt Arial Narrow (18 sides). All are suitable for either printing or viewing on a screen.

Beetles index, 2 columns (PDF)
Beetles index, 3 columns (PDF)
Beetles index, 4 columns (PDF)


Protection of ground-nesting birds

This year, as in 2018, we have been erecting signs to protect ground-nesting birds at popular places in the Severn and Avon Vales, asking ramblers and dog-walkers to keep to footpaths and to keep their animals under control. The signs have been produced with financial support from the Gloucestershire Naturalists’ Society. In February, we erected signs on Upton Ham in Worcestershire, with the support of the local farmers and the Upton Town Council. Articles calling on visitors to help protect the site have been published in the local newspaper and on the town Facebook page.

Now, in early March, signs have been erected on the Severn Ham at Tewkesbury, in Gloucestershire, in cooperation with the Tewkesbury Town Council. Both sites are riverside meadows, Sites of Special Scientific Interest, subject to flooding in winter, widely used and enjoyed by local residents and visitors from outside the towns. It is planned to put up similar signs on other sensitive sites in the Severn and Avon Vales.

Mike Smart


Letter from the Chair, February 2019

Dear Members

In my previous Letter from the Chair, I mentioned that there would be a change in the make-up of the Society’s Executive Committee after the forthcoming Annual General Meeting; there are candidates for the vacant posts on the Committee but, as noted in my previous Letter, other members are free to stand. As yet, I have not received any proposals, but there is still time before the meeting (on 22 March, at the Gala Club, Gloucester) to put your name forward. I can now announce that the principal speaker at the AGM will be a very long-standing member (indeed an Honorary Member of the Society, and author of the Society’s recent publication “The Beetles of Gloucestershire”), Dr Keith Alexander, on the subject of “Gloucestershire’s Best Beetles”. Do come along to hear him!

This will be my last Letter from the Chair, as I am standing down as Chairman on 22 March. I have been Chairman since 2003, but I originally joined the Society as a schoolboy in 1952: there was a “Hobbies Exhibition” at the Town Hall in Cheltenham, where I signed up as a member of what was then the “Cheltenham and District Naturalists’ Society”; (it later evolved, after a period as the “North Gloucestershire Naturalists’ Society”, into its present form). The Society was blessed by the involvement of a whole range of legendary volunteer naturalists (I really don’t like to call them ‘amateurs’; they were genuine experts in their own fields); people like the botanists Miss De Vesian and Miss Park, or RJM Skarratt (both botanist and ornithologist), or keen bird watchers like Terry James and Frank Whittingham, both of whom have died only recently. The Society at that time was (apart from Peter Scott’s then ’Severn Wildfowl Trust’ – which I also joined) the only naturalists-cum-conservation body in the county. It organized indoor meetings in the old Cheltenham Grammar School building on the High Street (right next to the Cheltenham Brewery, when it was a real brewery rather than a shopping mall); best of all it organized a range of field meetings every weekend, with midweek evening meetings in summer; and most of the field meetings were based on travel by public transport, going all over the county from Royal Well bus station. For me, and several other junior members at the time, being a member was a life-changing experience; my whole life has been influenced by it, since I became forever a keen bird-watcher, and in the end a professional conservationist.

So, when I was elected as Chairman in 2003, I felt a debt of gratitude, and a wish to support the Society’s traditional role as a body that encouraged volunteers to enjoy and study natural history. Since the 1950s of course a variety of other conservation bodies, both professional and voluntary, have developed in the county: Natural England, Environment Agency, Wildlife Trust, Butterfly Conservation, local bird clubs in Dursley and Cheltenham, to mention just a few. So the GNS role was not hands-on conservation management; and with the creation of the Gloucestershire Centre for Environmental Records, it was not even to collect and store records. I have always felt that the Society’s role was recording and publishing: helping GCER to verify their records through the network of County Recorders (their range and variety is illustrated in the ‘Wildlife Recording Information Sheet’ section of the present issue); encouraging volunteers to submit their records from a variety of taxa; and to encourage publications on all aspects of the county’s natural history. In the old days, there was a monthly roneo-typed “Journal” (delivered largely by hand!). I believe that GNS members greatly value the now quarterly GNS News, which reports on the latest natural history news and represents a regular link between members in an attractive illustrated format. And of course we should not forget the annual volume of ‘The Gloucestershire Naturalist”: number 32 has just appeared, edited by the indefatigable David Scott-Langley.

During my time as Chairman, the Society has thankfully, owing to generous legacies from many of those former CDNS members, been free of financial worries, allowing it to provide financial support for all these publications and also to provide grants for worthwhile conservation projects carried out by members. The Executive Committee welcomes applications from members who might need equipment or support to carry out projects: this has been an increasing activity in the last few years and is likely to develop. The highest priority for such grants is given to volunteer naturalists; the Society has no professional staff, and its Committee Members give freely and generously of their time, so in most cases the Committee are very reluctant to use the Society’s funds to pay for researchers’ time.

One of the Society’s aims has always been to arouse an interest in natural history, especially among young people. Over the last decade the Committee has spent a long time discussing ways and means of achieving this. I have to confess that we have not made as much progress in this field as I would have liked; perhaps, given the extent of regulations (notably Health and Safety) that surround these issues nowadays, this is something that can best be done by professionals. But we have taken some initiatives, notably with students at the University of Gloucestershire, so let us hope that this brings fruit.

On re-reading this note, I see that I have very frequently used the term ‘natural history’, and I think that this reflects the atmosphere that has always prevailed in the Society: serious, but not too scientific; enjoyable, but requiring thought and study. Long may we continue along this road. I wish my successor every success, and shall be continuing as an ordinary member of the Executive Committee, so shall remain involved in the Society’s activities, and in particular with fieldwork, on subjects such as …. Curlews perhaps?

With very best wishes

Mike Smart
Hon Chairman