A butterfly previously wiped out in England will fly in its former stronghold today for the first time in more than 40 years.
Wildlife charity Butterfly Conservation, working in partnership with the Forestry Commission (FC), has released Chequered Skipper butterflies at a secret location in Rockingham Forest, Northamptonshire, as part of the Back from the Brink conservation project. It is anticipated that these butterflies will mate and lay the foundations of a new English population of Chequered Skipper in the forest.
The Back from the Brink project, made possible by the National Lottery and People's Postcode Lottery, aims to save 20 species from extinction and benefit more than 200 others through 19 projects that span England.
Chequered Skipper, although always scarce, became extirpated in England in 1976 as a result of habitat loss due to changes in woodland management that saw a decline in coppicing and management of long, narrow tracks (aka rides) and an increase in conifer plantations which were unsuitable for the butterfly. In England, the butterfly was historically found in a band of woodlands and limestone grassland from Oxfordshire to Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire.
Although Chequered Skipper is found in parts of Scotland, conservationists always hoped to reintroduce the species to England if suitable habitat conditions could be recreated. Reintroduction trials took place in the mid-1990s, with the data gathered helping to provide vital information ahead of today's major reintroduction attempt. The Back from the Brink project has enabled parts of the butterfly's former stronghold Rockingham Forest to be restored to ideal conditions with wide, flower-filled rides.
Earlier this week, Butterfly Conservation ecologists travelled to Belgium to collect adult Chequered Skippers from the Fagne-Famenne region in the south of the country, where they are widespread, with the help of Belgian experts from the Research Institute for Nature and Forest and the Département de L'Etude du Milieu Naturel et Agricole.
The butterflies, a mix of males and females, were then taken via Eurostar across the Channel yesterday and transferred to Rockingham, where they were placed in release cages overnight ahead of today's release. Adults were chosen from Belgium rather than Scotland as the Belgian Chequered Skippers are found in a similar landscape to Rockingham Forest and share the same caterpillar foodplant, False Brome.
Today's reintroduction is the first of several that will take place at sites across Rockingham Forest over the next three years, with the hope of building a large, resilient and sustainable population of Chequered Skipper across the whole area. The reintroduction forms part of the Roots of Rockingham project, which is working across a network of sites to restore the forest to its former glory, helping many woodland species including Willow Tit, Lesser Spotted Woodpeckerand Barbastelle bat.
Dr Nigel Bourn, Butterfly Conservation Director of Science, said: "Today is an important milestone for conservation in the UK. It is a privilege to help return this charismatic little butterfly to its former stronghold of Rockingham Forest. It has taken many years and a lot of hard work from many people to get to this point and I am very proud to be part of the team collecting these beautiful butterflies and returning them to England at last."
Butterfly Conservation Chief Executive Julie Williams said: "Butterfly Conservation has been planning this reintroduction project for many years and I am delighted that by working collaboratively with our Back from the Brink partners, we have realised our ambition. We are so grateful to the players of the National Lottery and the Heritage Lottery Fund for their funding and support."
The release follows four years of careful planning with partners and authorities in the UK and Belgium to agree techniques, secure permissions and ensure the right habitat management is in place to support the new population. The reintroduction project is taking place in partnership with the Forestry Commission, who has been managing their forests to help the reintroduction of the butterfly in recent years. The project will be closely monitored to assess its success in the early stages, with the aim that in one or two years, once the population is secure, the public will be able to visit and enjoy seeing Chequered Skippers fly in England again.
Forestry Commission Environment and Heritage Manager for the Central England District, Adrienne Bennett, said: "I know I speak on behalf of our whole Ecology Team and the local Foresters when I say that we are really pleased that we are able to work so closely with the Back from the Brink project on this species reintroduction programme. Our forests are actively managed, not only as a source of timber for UK industry and as a place for people to enjoy recreation activities within, but also as valuable wildlife habitats."
Back from the Brink Communications Manager James Harding-Morris said: "It's fantastic to see one of our Back from the Brink projects make such great strides towards restoring a species to England.
"It will be a few years before we know how much of a success this introduction has been, but during that time Back from the Brink will be working to save hundreds of other threatened species. There will be events, training and volunteer opportunities across the country so that everyone can get involved in saving England's most threatened species from extinction."
If conditions are right, late May can generally be relied upon to provide British and Irish birders with at least a scattering of quality birds. In this stop-start spring, however, nothing can be taken for granted, and so it was that the exciting conditions from Friday onwards produced a decent, if slightly disappointing, selection of birds – particularly when you consider that, across the Atlantic, one of the greatest-ever witnessed migrations, involving hundreds of thousands of warblers, took place in Quebec on Monday (see here).
Of course, the effects of intensive agriculture, increased urban areas, degradation of habitat and many other causes are well documented in western Europe, and it should be of no great surprise that we are seeing ever-diminishing returns of even the supposed 'common' migrants on our shores, even during spells of promising weather. Yes, there was the inevitable scattering of late spring scarcities that such conditions almost always produce but, aside from one or two spots (such as Shetland), there was an undoubted 'flat' feeling among coastal patch-workers, who patiently wait all spring for days like these …
All that said, there was nonetheless enough excitement to go around and keep most birders inspired. It appears that 2018 is poised to produce a huge invasion of Rosy Starlings to Britain – and, given the numbers turning up across continental Europe, where records are being broken, quite possibly the biggest ever. Flocks are appearing as close as France, where an astonishing group of 500 was noted in Marseille during the week, and even as far west as Spain, but so far we've 'only' been treated to ones and twos. That said, you don't have to be a fortune-teller to suggest that the 19 reported over the seven-day period are the harbingers of a much larger arrival that will surely follow. Of those, no fewer than five were in Dorset, three were in Cornwall and Kent (including a lingering bird at Dungeness) and two were together on Anglesey, with further reports from Hampshire, Northamptonshire, Norfolk, East Yorkshire and the Isle of Skye.
From a similar part of the world came a gorgeous male Black-headed Bunting to Portland Bill, Dorset, which also hosted two of the county's Rosy Starlings. Unfortunately, what could easily have been the week's star bird (it's a long time since a male lingered longer than a day in the south) was found late in the evening on Bank Holiday Monday and had departed by the following morning.
Instead, the star bird was indisputably the male Moltoni's Warbler found at Duncansby Head, Highland, on 28th. Despite apparently favouring cover consisting of little more than a fence line and nearby cliffs, it lingered overnight and was still showing very well on 29th. While there are currently fewer than 10 accepted British records of this recently split species, this latest occurrence continues a good run of occurrences in recent years, as identification awareness improves among birders – and there's a feeling that it could even be more of a near-annual vagrant, rather than one worthy of the BirdGuides red exclamation mark, though only time will tell.]
A male Eastern Subalpine Warbler visited Long Nab, Burniston, North Yorks, on 26-27th, with a female on Bardsey Island, Gwynedd, on 29th. A new Iberian Chiffchaff was at Red Rocks, Cheshire, on 23-24th, with another still singing nearby at Thurstaston Common and further birds remaining in Cornwall (two) and North Yorkshire. Four Greenish Warblers were found: a male sang at Titchwell, Norfolk, on 24-25th, one was in Lowestoft, Suffolk, on 26th, one arrived on Out Skerries, Shetland, on 27th, and another graced the Isle of May, Fife, on 27-28th.
The first Great Reed Warbler of the year sang on St Mary's, Scilly, on 27th, while another addition to the 2018 year list was Paddyfield Warbler, with a bird at Scatness, Shetland, on 28th. Bardsey Island scored a Blyth's Reed Warbler from 25-27th, with others at Blakeney Point, Norfolk, on 26th, Newton Pool, Northumberland, and Fair Isle on 27th, and Red Rocks, Cheshire, on 28th (the latter recorded singing after dark thanks to a camera trap). A good spread of Marsh Warblers were encountered right along the east coast between Suffolk and Shetland, most of which were in song. Icterine Warblers were, however, much scarcer, with the species barely making it into double figures. Away from the Northern Isles, there were singles in Fife, Northumberland, East Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, with two records from Norfolk.
Red-backed Shrikes were quite plentiful, with at least 50 scattered along the east coast and Northern Isles, including a peak count of eight on Fair Isle on 28th. Around 15 Common Rosefinchesincluded west coast records from Lundy, Devon, and Great Orme, Conwy, with a third on Tiree, Argyll. Nine Red-breasted Flycatchers included a smart male trapped at Calf of Man on 23rd and a well-watched female at Holy Island, Northumberland, on 26-27th. AWhite-spotted Bluethroatwas trapped on Bardsey on 25th, with a scattering of Bluethroats also reported in the Northern Isles (and one at Wick, Highland, on 25th). Rustic Buntings are becoming ever rarer, although the Farne Islands, Northumberland, claimed their second of the spring on 26th, this time a stunning male.
As many as 15 Golden Orioles were seen, including three on St Agnes, Scilly, on 27th and a twitchable immature male at Spurn, East Yorks, on 29th. Four Hoopoes included a singing male in Folkestone, Kent, from 27th. Also from the south, a Woodchat Shrike graced Lundy, Devon, from 24-27th. There were a couple of records of European Serin in Norfolk, with a more typical occurrence involving a brief bird at Dungeness, Kent, on 27th. A light scattering of European Bee-eater records predominately came from southern counties, although one reached as far north as Sanday and North Ronaldsay, Orkney.
The Snowy Owl remained on St Kilda, Outer Hebrides, to at least 25th. A Black Kite flew up the west coast of Yell, Shetland, on 24th, and there were also reports from Cornwall, Wiltshire and Somerset. A female Red-footed Falcon was at Tacumshin, Co Wexford, from 27-29th, while another showed very well at Isle Brewers, Somerset, on 28-29th.
News broke of a female Little Crake on 23rd, the bird having been audible at Ouse Fen, Cambs, on 21st, but there was no further sign of it subsequently.
A Gull-billed Tern was seen along the River Severn between Slimbridge and Fretherne on a few occasions on 25th and 27th, while the Forster's Tern was still showing at Tacumshin during the week. A beauty of a White-winged Tern showed well at Burnham Overy, Norfolk, from 23-26th, with fly-bys at Cottam, Notts, and Marshside, Lancs, on 25th.
Tacumshin hosted an American Golden Plover from 24-27th, with another at Skaw, Unst, on 29th. A Kentish Plover showed well at Kingston Seymour, Somerset, on 28-29th. Three Black-winged Stilts flew over Rye Harbour, East Sussex, on 25th, with two again there on 27-28th. Meanwhile, the regular male was at Eldernell, Cambs, to 26th, but then visted Rutland Water again on 27th before returning to Frampton Marsh, Lincs, on 28th and then moving to nearby Freiston Shore on 29th. A male Eurasian Dotterel lingered at Flamborough Head, East Yorks, all week, while other singles were at Rattray Head, Aberdeenshire, and Hoy, Orkney.
Waterbird news included the continuing American Black Duck at Strontian, Highland, while thePied-billed Grebe also remained at Loch Feorlin, Argyll. A new American Wigeon was unearthed at Broad Lough, Co Wicklow, on 24th, with two found near Loch Ardvule, South Uist, on 23rd and the Northumberland drake still at Grindon Lough. Just a single Green-winged Teal was seen – a drake on Islay, Argyll. Rutland Water hosted a Ring-necked Duck on 26th, with another on South Uist. Impressively, three Surf Scoter were off Musselburgh, Lothian, on 25th. Two White-billed Divers were still off Tory Island, Co Donegal, on 25th, with another north past Whitburn, Durham, on 27th and one off North Ronaldsay, Orkney, on 29th.
A Purple Heron that flew north past Thorpeness, Suffolk, on 28th was presumably the bird seen at Minsmere, Suffolk, the following day. A Glossy Ibis was seen at several sites in coastal south Lincolnshire, with others in Nottinghamshire, Northumberland and Aberdeenshire. A Black Kite flew over Swinefleet, East Yorks, on 28th.
Seabird news was thin on the ground, although an early Wilson's Storm Petrel was noted from a pelagic out of Baltimore, Co Cork, on 24th.
A singing Sora was a great find near Vretstorp, Sweden, on 29th. Other highlights in the country included a Moltoni's Warbler trapped and ringed at Ottenby, Öland, and a Stejneger's Scoter near Mörbylånga, both on 26th. In neighbouring Norway, an Oriental Pratincole at Hå, Rogaland, on 27-28th is presumably the recent Swedish bird.
The long-staying Dwarf Bittern was still at Llanos Pelados, Fuerteventura, on 28th. Other records included Poland's fifth Slender-billed Gull at Buda Stalowska on 28th and Armenia's first Black Lark at Vedi Gorge on 24th. A Greenish Warbler on Isola Ventotene on 27th represents just the second record for Italy, while Cape Verde's fourth Plain Swift was on Sal on 24th.
The extent and cost of wildlife being poisoned by spent lead ammunition is higher than previously thought, according to figures in a new report by an expert advisory panel.
Ducks, geese and swans are the main victims, consuming the majority of the 5,000 tonnes of tiny lead shot pellets discharged across the UK each year. The birds mistake the pellets for the grit which they injest in order to grind food in their gizzards.
The report also shows one type of lead exposure is more hazardous than previously thought. Around a quarter of quarry birds are shot at but survive and concern has now grown around how much lead they absorb from the embedded pellets left in their bodies. Symptoms include disorientation, inability to digest food, and fewer and weaker eggs.
New estimates in the report suggest that up to 400,000 wildfowl could be made sick by embedded lead pellets in the UK each year, on top of up to 300,000 already estimated to be affected by ingesting poisonous pellets. It's already known that up to 100,000 of these wildfowl die. But, for the first time, the report suggests a financial cost for these deaths – being the equivalent market value of that number of captive-bred birds – which would be around £16m per year.
In 2016, the UK government decided to continue allowing the use of lead shot in much of the country because, regardless of how many thousands of individual birds suffer or die, it wouldn't take action unless entire populations were being affected. However, the report highlighted that several new studies have examined population-level effects in birds. Population modelling and correlative studies suggest that lead poisoning may be affecting population growth rates and sizes in a number of species, including freshwater ducks in the UK and along their flyways. Also affected are Grey Partridge, Common Buzzards, as well as Red Kite in selected locations in Europe including the UK. Particular concern has been expressed about the possible impact of lead poisoning on the population of the globally threatened Common Pochard.
Common Pochard is declining, with lead poisoning being one of several threats it faces (Jon Mercer).
The new figures and observations are published by the UK's Lead Ammunition Group (LAG) in a round-up of new research and publications since it submitted a government-commissioned report on the subject in 2015. It lists international initiatives which show that, outside the UK, there are strong international moves towards the use of non-toxic ammunition.
A European Chemicals Agency proposal is at an advanced consultation stage. This aims to phase out lead ammunition across all wetland habitats in the EC. The UN Convention on Migratory Species has passed a Resolution to phase out lead ammunition and established an international Lead Task Group. The UN's Environment Programme passed a Resolution encouraging Member States to raise awareness of the negative impacts and risks to wildlife of chemical pollutants including lead ammunition. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) adopted a Resolution calling for all governments and organisations to work towards phasing out lead ammunition.
However, these are all long-term international moves that will not see any government policy changes in the UK in the short term. In the meantime, voluntary responsibility lies with the shooting industry. Non-toxic alternatives to lead ammunition are already widely available.
The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) is one of the organisations which contributes to LAG's voluntary monitoring of developments since its government commission ended. Responding to the LAG's update report, WWT's Peter Morris, Head of Communications, said: "This report shows there is great global consensus and political momentum to stop poisoning wildlife. We'd love the UK to catch up with that international enthusiasm to clean up the countryside. It's great to see segments of the shooting industry already embracing that ambition.
"The challenge in this country is that lead ammunition was somehow side-tracked off into pro- and anti-shooting debates, with some on both sides mistaking its phasing-out as a potential thin end of a wedge for the sport. But switching to lead-free ammunition is actually a win-win – it results in healthier live wild birds and healthier game meat too."
X-ray of a gizzard containing ingested lead shot (WWT).
Puffin numbers on Northumberland's remote Farne Islands may have fallen by an average of 12 per cent, according to early figures in the National Trust's five-yearly count.
Initial counts suggest the population has fallen by up to 42 per cent on one of the islands – much worse than expected. The last count took place in 2013, when nearly 40,000 breeding pairs were recorded. The Puffins have also returned four weeks later than usual to their nesting grounds on the windswept islands off the Northumberland due to prolonged harsh winter weather.
Puffins are in trouble on the Farne Islands (Tony Hovell).
The trust, which has been looking after the islands for 93 years, will step up monitoring in a bid to help better understand the alarming decline. Ranger Tom Hendry explained: "Initial findings are concerning. Numbers could be down due to stormy or wetter weather, as well as changes in the sand eel population, which is one of their staple foods.
"So far we've surveyed four of the eight islands where we conduct the census. Figures from the two largest islands are vastly contradictory, with numbers on Brownsman 42 per cent down, while recordings on Staple show an 18 per cent increase. We will now do some further investigations as to why this might be.
"Figures across the two smaller islands are more consistent, but numbers are still down by up to 33 per cent. We will hopefully have a much clearer picture towards the end of the count in late June. If the final results reflect this drop, this will increase the need for us to monitor these beautiful ‘clowns of the sea' more frequently.
"Puffins are notoriously difficult to monitor, which is part of the reason why they have not been monitored every year. Annual monitoring will help us discover the true picture and help track numbers against likely causes of population change, whether the causes are found to be changes to the weather as a result of climate change, changes in the sand eel population or something else altogether."
A Puffin with a beakful of sand eels on the Farne Islands (Jon Mercer).
Puffin was given Vulnerable status in 2015 by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) following widespread declines. The most likely contributors to this fall in numbers internationally include climate change contributing to food shortages and extreme weather, overfishing, invasive predators such as rats on some islands and marine pollution, in addition to other threats.
Puffin is also on the British Trust for Ornithology's Red List for species of conservation concern in the UK. Puffin, with its striking orange, yellow and dark blue beak (which goes dark in the autumn and winter) is less than 30 cm tall. They mate for life, but most likely separate over winter, pairing up again on returning to their breeding grounds in spring.
Puffin records on the Farne Islands date back to 1939, when just 3,000 breeding pairs were recorded. Every census until 2008 showed a steady increase – but in that year, numbers fell by a third, dropping from 55,674 to 36,835. Again, this decrease was thought to be largely due to the impacts of climate change. The last census in 2013 revealed there were 39,962 breeding pairs on the island.
As Puffins nest underground, the rangers will monitor the nests carefully to decipher whether burrows are occupied or not. Describing how they carry out the count, ranger Harriet Reid commented: "The first thing we do is arrange a grid over the most populated islands to determine the best locations to put at least 30 plots per island. This ensures we cover different habitat types and keep our plot selections random to reduce statistical error.
"We then put a stake in the middle of each plot and put a 5-m piece of string out, and use that diameter to check all the burrows around the central stake. We will also do a full census on the least populated islands, looking at every burrow.
"We'll be looking out for the first birds with fish in their beaks, a sure sign their burrows are occupied with a hungry 'puffling'. We also look for external signs around the burrow to determine whether Puffins are using it, such as fresh digging, Puffin footprints, clearance of vegetation at the burrow entrance, hatched eggshells, or fish or guano in the entrance. If we are unsure, it's only on this occasion that we'll put our arm down the burrow to gently and carefully feel for any occupants. We then carefully record our findings."
Puffins have traditionally done well on the Farnes, thanks to monitoring and protection from the rangers, good sources of food, a lack of ground predators and the availability of suitable nesting areas.
Tom Hendry concluded: "Predictions have been made that within the next 50-100 years these stunning birds will have completely died out on the Farne Islands. The Icelandic population in particular is really struggling, with exceptionally low productivity for [more than]10 years.
"The monitoring of Puffin numbers worldwide is therefore really important to discover whether the species can continue to survive. If we can carry out an annual census in as many places as possible, this will give us more of an indication as to what is impacting these truly special birds and give us insight into what else we can do here [and] at other sites across the world to help the species.
"If the causes of Puffin decline are what we suspect, it will require a bigger effort to encourage everyone to think about how we can prevent overfishing, reduce our use of single-use plastics and limit our use of non-renewable energy, but it can be done."
It could be that sights like this become a thing of the past on the Farne Islands (Andy Mould).
This year also marks the 25th anniversary of the Farnes achieving National Nature Reserve status. John Walton was property manager for the conservation charity at the time. He said: "This designation was the culmination of years of work, both locally and nationally, to having the islands acknowledged as being the 'best of the best' nature reserves in Britain. It opened up additional finance for the protection of the islands and helped fund studies and research.
"Partnership working with Natural England and other conservation agencies is essential in maintaining the islands as one of the best and most exciting nature reserves in the world."