The Stiperstones are not actually in our parish but they can be seen from many parts of it and are close to the hearts of many local people.
The dunnocks on the hill seem to think that the worst of the winter is over, as they are now singing away with their loud tinkling warble from the tops of gorse bushes and trees. They are always one of the first birds to start singing on the hill. Probably like the robin, that sings all year, they tend to live in the dark undergrowth of hedges and woods and are less affected by the low light levels during the winter.
Again like robins, they are primarily woodland birds that have adapted to use hedges and gardens, and although not as obvious as a robin they are a well-known visitor to most gardens. The name dunnock sums up their drab plumage perfectly as it means ‘small brown bird’. It has lots of other colloquial names including hedge sparrow, due to the similar brown colouration of these birds, but the dunnock is in the accentor family whose nearest relatives are alpine birds found in the mountains of Europe.
Interestingly, the dull little dunnock has one of the most complex sex lives, involving lots of partner-swapping: some male birds will have two females, while some females may have two or three males, or even two or three males will share up to four females. It must be a complex life being a dunnock and, after all that effort to maximise their breeding success, they could well end up feeding the young of a cuckoo that has laid its eggs in their nest.
We are hoping that the dunnock is correct and the worst of the winter is over, as a dry March is often the key to us being able to carry out enough heather burning on the hill. We have a target of burning about five hectares of the heath each year, but this depends upon getting the right weather conditions and having the staff or volunteers available to manage those fires. This controlled burning and cutting of the heath maintains its varied structure which benefits a whole range of species including insects, lichens and birds.
The conifer-felling is progressing well at Bergam Wood with almost half the trees down at the time of writing. Once this is completed there are a number of other jobs that will need to be organised such as re-fencing, improving the public right of way, clearing the brash from the site and ensuring that the old mine entrance is suitably gated to prevent access but encourage its use by bats. At the moment it is used by a few lesser-horseshoe bats. Maybe there is a chance of us encouraging a greater horseshoe bat, a much rarer bat that, excitingly, has recently been found at Snailbeach.
We are witnessing an increased use of the Stiperstones by mountain bikers. Although visitors by bike are welcome, please remember that bikes should only be used on public bridleways. Riding away from paths causes erosion and damage to the site and encourages access to otherwise quiet areas increasing disturbance to the wildlife.
We will be helping with the Wildlife Fair in Bishops Castle Town Hall on 10 March, 10 – 4. ‘Beautiful Bugs’ is the theme. Maybe see you there.
Simon Cooter for Natural England staff at Rigmoreoak
We are well in to the New Year now when I always think that it is worth looking back at some of the conservation successes in the area. Conservation can tend to get a bit gloomy sometimes as we hear a lot about the country’s declining wildlife and uncertain times ahead. However there are a lot of people working away locally who care enough to get involved and make a difference. Even if you are just putting food out for your birds it all helps maintain our wonderful wildlife heritage.
These are just a few highlights of 2017 on and around the Stiperstones that come to mind.
We managed to purchase Bergum Wood as an extension to the Stiperstones NNR, through public donations. A first for Natural England and the present conifers will start to be felled at the end of this month to make way for a new native upland oak wood.
Nightjar returned to the Stiperstones after a thirteen year absence, having not been seen since 2004. Although only a calling male was heard and seen, we live in hope that it will return to breed next year.
Restoration works, including the removal of conifers and the blocking of lots of drainage channels, was carried out at a number of sites on and around the Stiperstones by the Shropshire Wildlife Trust-run Wet Flushes project. We have already seen a good deal of snipe activity in these re-wetted areas and look forward to seeing if we get any more breeding territories in the spring.
The Hay Meadow Festival ran for its second year and attracted over 500 visitors, many of whom were keen to learn about scything and our fantastic flower-rich hay meadows.
The Curlew Country Project, with the help of local farmers, saw 30 curlew chicks hatch with at least six to nine successfully fledged young, which was a huge leap forward from the zero success rates that had been recorded in the two previous years.
The Landscape Partnership Scheme’s Rescuing Rocks and Relics Project opened up a lot of important butterfly sites through the removal of scrub, which should see a benefit next year in building the populations of some of our special butterflies such as grayling and grizzled skipper.
The Rea Valley Community Wildlife Group continued to monitor the success of the nest box project at Resting Hill, with eight broods of pied flycatchers and of course the two dormice nests.
The Stepping Stones Project which is looking at the wider connectivity of habitats across this landscape, has been taken on by the National Trust as one of their major projects in the region and we look forward to seeing how this develops over the coming years.
Simon Cooter for Natural England staff at Rigmoreoak
The weather has reasonably kind so far this winter, although not dry enough to carry out any heather burning yet. Most of our work lately has been replacing fence posts that don’t seem to last very long these days and tree sapling removal from the heathland. The latter job is helped greatly by our volunteer task group, as it is much easier to cover a good area of ground with a group of people. If left to its own devices the heathland would fairly quickly succeed to scrub woodland, so tree removal is a constant task to maintain the heathland habitat and the species that depend upon it.
Last weekend I went on a visit (some would call it a twitch) to Newcastle on Clun to watch a bird that I have never been able to see in this country, a hawfinch. These striking finches are very hard to see usually, as they are not common and not very obvious as they tend to feed quietly in the top of tall trees. However this year there has been a large influx of them into the country from Europe probably due to the failure of the beech mast this year. Which means that the birds in Newcastle have probably moved in from the continent. The result was that I managed to get my first views of these elusive birds. Their most obvious features from a distance are their large head and bill and their thick neck. The males are quite orangey brown and the females more greyish. Both have a black mask around the bill. They have amazingly strong bills that can crack cherry stones, but in Newcastle were feeding on yew berries.
Although we might not be lucky enough to see hawfinches on the Stiperstones, the failure of the beech crop on the continent could bring over another finch, the brambling. These birds are similar in size to a chaffinch, but can be identified by its orange tinted breast, compared to the pink male chaffinch. However its most obvious feature is its white rump which shows when it flies away. Bramblings are common winter visitors from Scandinavia but this year could be a lot commoner.
The Curlew Country project has recently reported on the success of the nests that it monitored this summer. You may remember that none of the nests had fledged any young in the previous year (2016). This year showed some improvement with twenty eight young hatching from twenty two nests, with possibly eight fledging. This is a huge step forward made possible by lots of help like putting up electric fences around nests and farmers delaying cutting times, however we need to see more successes before we can save these birds from local extinction. To read the full report, visit www.curlew county.org.
Don’t forget the Christmas wreath making at the Blakemoorgate cottages on the 10th December and of course the Dash or Dawdle on Boxing Day, or we might bump in to you as we try and sell some of our new reserve gifts at a Christmas fair.
Simon Cooter and the Natural England staff at Rigmoreoak