Bringing back the birds: the next level of patch gold

By Charlie Peverett

Finding your own rarities close to home is often considered peak birding, but there’s another summit worth scaling and it’s coming closer into view.

As many of us have found in 2020, local green spaces are precious and can be full of surprises. I live in the middle of a town in Sussex, but it’s pretty small. Walk hard for 20 minutes and you can be in a large woodland or at the edge of the Pevensey Levels, a nature-depleted but still-interesting area of lowland grassland. 

Birding within walking distance of home this year has turned up breeding Hobby and Spotted Flycatchers, stacks of Crossbills, a White Stork (of dubious origin but unquestionable impressiveness), five or more Cattle Egrets (including a young one), and patch ticks in the form of Grey Plover and Corn Bunting. It’s been nothing to trouble the national news services but enough to keep me interested.

Some of these records have come from what Matt Livesey calls “the spaces between spaces”, those spots that you just wouldn’t have visited if you hadn’t been walking somewhere. As 2020 has gone on, a couple of these spaces have become destinations in themselves for me, with the biggest surprise being a cluster of fields on the edge of town that I’d never bothered with until lockdown.

Habitat creation on the edge of the Pevensey Levels

The landowner there has been turning old pasture into meadows and woodland, and it is now full of dense cover. Swifts, Swallows and Hobby feed overhead in the summer, and the mix of old hedgerows and new scrub is good for Cuckoo, Lesser Whitethroats, Bullfinches, Linnets and Stock Doves. This autumn the area has proved to be a decent visible migration spot and produced my first local Tree Pipit, troupes of Redpolls and the year’s only Clouded Yellow.

It is a good place to spend time, not only because there seems to be potential for something more unusual to turn up in the scrub but because there, in contrast to many places I know, things actually appear to be getting better for nature.  

You get a strong dose of that same feeling from a place in Hampshire that increasing numbers of birders will know. It is a stretch of floodplain just north of the town of Romsey that has become one of the county’s best birding spots, and the transformation has happened quickly and seemingly by accident.

Fishlake Meadows was an ornithologically low-key part of the Test Valley until the pumps that kept it from flooding were turned off in the early 1990s. That event was not apparently part of any conservation management plan, but over the next few years a permanently wet area built up and a wild, almost primeval, patchwork of habitats with it. The site began to attract Ospreys, Bitterns and a decent range of warblers, herons and ducks. Scarcities such as a summering Savi’s Warbler, Glossy Ibis and most recently Caspian Tern have been recorded, along with mammals including otter and water vole. Last spring I spent a brilliant morning there with Grasshopper Warblers, Garganey and three Cuckoos chasing each other around, all during a deafening dawn chorus.   

Fishlake Meadows

The site is now managed by the Hants & IOW Wildlife Trust, who have made it easier to access with a boardwalk and viewing platforms, and have made plans for an observation tower. But the work of creating this rich habitat was done by natural processes. Ecologist Peter Cooper grew up in Romsey and was able to observe first-hand the explosion of life at Fishlake Meadows. He writes:

“Imagine if every town had their own wild floodplain landscape directly upstream of them, as is the case with Romsey and Fishlake Meadows… Not only would you be providing a flood relief buffer, but a place where people could reconnect with nature right on their doorstep. And I mean real nature.”

Soaking up the pressure

We saw over the summer that iconic outdoor attractions are now easily overwhelmed by visitors. It was pretty depressing seeing the pictures of endless streams of cars parked up on roadside verges and post-apocalyptic clean-up operations. But these scenes were only extreme versions of what many sites now deal with seasonally. 

It exposes how dysfunctional our collective interaction with the outdoors is, and suggests the need for many more places that both wildlife and people can escape to. Maybe the flood analogy works here too. Areas upstream of flood-prone spots have a role to play in absorbing rainfall – through rivers that are allowed to wiggle and break their banks, and hillsides that have vegetation to slow and draw up water. Surely nature-rich local places have a role to play in attracting people and taking the pressure off worn-out visitor hotspots, and the roads that take us there.

Not everywhere can be a Bournemouth beach, a Mount Snowdon or Lake Windermere, but aesthetic considerations about where we might want to spend time outdoors are not fixed. History suggests that what is considered natural and beautiful, and what constitutes a ‘visitor attraction’’, is open to change. The Knepp Estate in West Sussex makes a good case for that.

The Knepp story is increasingly well known, and told in absorbing detail in Isabella  Tree’s book ‘Wilding’. In brief: over the last twenty years, a few thousand acres of low-grade farmland in West Sussex has been regenerated by the action of a range of grazing animals and a hands-off, target-free approach to managing the land. The emergence of many kinds of scrub and marginal habitats has created a landscape that is varied and ‘untidy’ (unnervingly so to some eyes) while also becoming one of England’s greatest strongholds of Turtle Dove, Nightingale and Purple Emperor.

Pool with emergent willows, Knepp Estate 

Along with the wildlife, Knepp is now a big draw for people as well. For ecologists, campers and walkers it supplies a precious experience – abundant wildlife in the interior of South East England. And while the reintroduction (or perhaps just introduction) of White Storks at Knepp divides opinion among birders, recent records of Black Stork, Black Kite, Golden Oriole and Red-backed Shrike provide undoubted further reasons to visit. 

The truth is that Knepp is ‘special, but not special’. What’s happened there is remarkable, given mainstream expectations about how the countryside should look and be managed. But the real lesson is that declines in birdlife and other biodiversity can be reversed at pace, on relatively ordinary land, with simple techniques and a shift in perspective. 

There could be many more Knepps and Fishlakes, and they could happen soon. With an emphasis on allowing natural processes and light-touch management, they offer options that may well suit the cash-strapped times ahead.

There are already many ambitious rewilding and nature restoration schemes in their early stages, such as Wild East, Coombeshead and Natural Cambridgeshire. Changes to agricultural subsidies, pressure to increase carbon storage and commitments to increase the amount of land protected for nature could open the way for these and many other projects to get off the ground.

We don’t have to be landowners or policymakers to be part of bringing these places alive. These areas also need local advocates, people willing to speak up for change where they live and make the case for nature. And specifically they need birders, to visit, survey, share records and spread the word.

Occasional visits only ever scratch the surface. Regular patch watching builds an understanding of what’s already there and how things are changing, seasonally and in the longer term. This kind of information can have all kinds of benefits – from revealing unusual species that could confer immediate protection, to guiding the way that a site could be managed to build on what’s good already.

And it may be the encounters that never make it onto Birdtack that have just as big an impact. It is the chance meetings with others who know the place – sympathetic farmers and other long-time locals with memories that stretch back a few years, decades or even generations – that can reveal hidden records and future possibilities.

Many of us will have dreamed of living near a famous birding spot, but maybe it is time to dream bigger. What about being part of the creation of places with the potential to bring long-lost and rare new birds to the places near where we live? Imagine recording their return or arrival. Imagine a patch that keeps getting better and better.

Maybe it’s time for a new level of ‘patch gold’.


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