Wildlife in Herefordshire

by Ruth Moss, Wildlife Monitoring Officer

During winter, when bats and dormice slumber and eggs lie in wait to develop into butterflies and moths, the CRT’s Wildlife Monitors use nature’s down time to delve into monitoring data. Ruth shares highlights from surveys on the CRT’s two Herefordshire farms during 2022 and investigates how some of the farms’ priority species have been faring.

House sparrow and wren have a good year

Nine breeding pairs of house sparrows nested on Awnells Farm last year – that’s four more pairs than in 2021. Individual birds were also counted 79 times between mid-March and July 2022. This species is on the Red List for Birds of Conservation Concern (BoCC) and the British Trust for Ornithology reports that the UK population declined by 70 per cent between 1977 and 2018. So, the fact that they are appearing to increase in abundance on Awnells Farm is a promising indication that the farm’s bramble scrub, ponds and buildings are providing good quality breeding habitat for them.

Eight Red-listed species were recorded on both farms during 2022: greenfinch, house sparrow, starling, yellowhammer, linnet, skylark, swift and fieldfare. On Turnastone Court Farm, Red-listed marsh tit, house martin and spotted flycatcher were also recorded.

During the breeding season, a total of 45 species of bird were counted on Awnells Farm and 52 species on Turnastone Court Farm.

Sadly, common redstarts don’t appear to have bred on Awnells Farm last year, after holding two territories in 2021. The breeding range of this species is shrinking and becoming confined to western areas of Britain.

The most successful breeding bird species of the year on Turnastone Court Farm was the wren, which held 23 more territories in 2022 and increased in number by 78 per cent, compared with the year before. Wrens moved up to the BoCC Amber List in 2021, due to the international importance of the breeding population in Britain.

Drought hits butterflies and bumblebees

On Awnells Farm, the number of butterflies recorded each month during the 2022 monitoring season followed a similar pattern to 2021 up until July, when they declined steeply. This was likely due to the extreme heatwave that hit the UK last summer, with temperatures going above 40°C. After months of little to no rainfall, a drought was declared across most of England and Wales in August. The number of butterflies on Awnells Farm dropped from 560 butterflies in July to just 59 in August, so there were 78 per cent fewer than in August 2021.

During a drought, plants wilt and drop their leaves, so less food is available for caterpillars. This will have particularly impacted species that attempt more than one brood – such as speckled woods – or that emerge later in the season, like gatekeepers.

Over half the butterfly species on Turnastone Court Farm were down in numbers in 2022 compared to the year before. The ‘white’ butterflies suffered notable declines, with 92 per cent fewer large white and 55 per cent fewer green-veined white. These observations were also reflected nationally in Butterfly Conservation’s Big Butterfly Count.

The good news is some species enjoyed the hot, dry summer, such as meadow browns, which were seen in large numbers in May and June.

Bumblebees also found the hot weather a struggle. Their activity starts to reduce when temperatures rise above 27°C. Only 31 bumblebees were recorded between March and October last summer during our BeeWalk surveys at Turnastone Court Farm. This is two-thirds less than in 2021. In August, during the height of the hot weather, just one common carder bee and two red-tailed bumblebees were counted, compared with 69 bumblebees spotted in the same month the year before.

Survey of meadow vegetation

We recorded 20 species of desirable herbaceous plants in the hay meadow at Turnastone Court Farm, including red clover, lesser trefoil and ribwort plantain. There was plenty of yellow rattle present, which is good news, as this hemi-parasitic plant weakens grasses, creating space for less dominant species of wildflowers to establish. Common spotted orchid and ox-eye daisy also grow in the meadow. The composition of floral species in the hay meadow is good, but we’d like to increase the diversity and encourage rarer species such as orchids to proliferate.

The results of surveys on our Herefordshire farms are reported to our partners in conservation, including the British Trust for Ornithology, Butterfly Conservation, The Bumblebee Conservation Trust and the Biological Records Centre, to contribute to national monitoring efforts.

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Published in The Lark magazine, May 2023