George Winn-Darley is owner of 7,000 acre Spaunton Moor on the North York Moors and regional representative and committee member of the Moorland Association. He is very much a ‘hands-on' land manager with a passion for moorland wildlife.
One of the country's most threatened bird species is bucking serious decline by finding a protected haven. Parts of North York Moors are continuing to see steady numbers of ring ouzels, whose numbers have plummeted across the UK in recent years. Ecologists and conservationists expect the results from the 2012 national survey to be equally depressing.
However, the charismatic little bird appears to be thriving in areas of moorland sanctuary. A record 14 nests on Spaunton Moor near Kirkbymoorside were surveyed last year, along with 23 territories, the highest seen in hundreds of hours of monitoring over 15 years. Numbers of ring ouzel have dropped nationally at an alarming rate and the success on Spaunton Moor is attributed to careful management and predator control.
Habitat managed primarily for red grouse has a large part to play in the breeding success of this beautiful and distinctive bird. They rely on extensively covered heather moorland and nest on the ground, preferring steep heather banks or rocky ledges. However, this makes them vulnerable to foxes, stoats, rats and weasels.
Sadly, 13 chicks were killed last year and although predator risks are substantial, on estates where grouse moor is controlled by keepers the dangers are substantially lessened. Although overall breeding activity was up, cold, wet weather from April to June took its toll, alongside predator attacks, resulting in low productivity. Another hardship came from a lack of rowan berries, particularly valuable to ring ouzels just before they migrate. Last year's poor summer meant they ripened too late and the birds left the area undernourished.
George Winn-Darley said: "We are delighted such rare, endangered species have been given crucial help by our grouse moor management." He paid tribute to ornithologist Kendrick Hutchinson for his years of painstaking research and monitoring on Spaunton Moor. "I met Kendrick when we were both on the North York Moors Association Council. He was a keen bird watcher and Rosedale is one of the closest bits of moorland to where he lived. He knew there were ring ouzels along the railway line and the edge of the moor and asked if he could monitor them. I was delighted to say yes and he liaised with George Thompson, the head keeper".
"This proved a fruitful relationship as Kendrick became more and more frustrated and upset when, year after year, nests were attacked by rats, stoats or weasels." Rings of traps set especially around nest sites resulted in successful fledging, explains George. "The enthusiasm of Kendrick and sheer dedication to the cause is incredible. He spends two days a week for up to four months monitoring these delightful little birds".
"We're seeing a combination of monitoring and habitat/predator management paying off. Like many other moors managed for grouse shooting, we also survey other birds. Merlin, the UK's smallest bird of prey, are monitored almost to the same level as ring ouzels and annually ringed before they fledge. Enthusiastic ornithologists are given help finding nests and monitoring predator patterns. Year on year data suggest they too are stable and have increased on areas reclaimed from bracken."
The recent State of Nature report points to a measured decline in 65 per cent of upland species in England and Wales. This comes as no surprise to George. "Forty per cent of heather moorland habitat was lost in the decades following the Second World War. On the North York Moors around 22 per cent was lost to encroaching bracken but with a concerted effort over two decades by grouse moor managers, heather has been regenerated on roughly half".
"The success of ring ouzels and other species makes me very proud. Not only are they thriving, but bucking what is a pretty sad national trend. My experience with ring ouzel and merlin, along with wading birds such as lapwing, curlew and golden plover, tells me that these species are stable on my patch and neighbouring grouse moors.
"However, they are declining on other upland areas where there is no grouse moor management. Improving habitat for grouse shooting is the linchpin and economic engine that keeps conservation management going and produces these ‘free' spin-offs, a concept often hard for ecologists and conservationists to appreciate."
George said whatever works on the ground should be invested in, adding: "There's no point backing projects with money and effort that don't produce positive results. I enjoy seeing abundant wildlife on the moor and take a great deal of pleasure from others enjoying it too". North York Moors has nine million day visitors a year and the National Park wants to increase this to over 10 million, which would be a significant boost to tourism.
"We monitor their numbers along the disused railway which is a crucial nesting habitat for ring ouzel. Numbers of walkers are stable, but mountain bikers are increasing as the sport's popularity grows. We have visitors all year round, not just in the previously busy period from Easter to September. Obviously, numbers peak in warm, dry spells".
"This will impact on wildlife, especially when dogs run loose. However, this is balanced with a number of measures, including positively managed access. People are encouraged to stick to tracks and paths and not bring their dogs during the March to July breeding season. It is essential dogs are kept under effective close control for the rest of the year. Optimising habitat and predator control also lessen the effects of disturbance".
The rowan tree planting scheme is an important part of the process. Ring ouzel will, in future, be able to migrate well-fed on the berries. George explained: "Grants may be available to meet some costs. We will cover the remaining expenditure because it is the right thing to do".
"Touch wood, the breeding season for all moorland wildlife is looking much better than last year's when it was blighted by cold and persistently wet weather. We've had late frosts, snow and some heavy rain, which will have taken their toll on some species, but overall this is looking like a better breeding season. Early indications are that Kendrick is pleased with the ring ouzel count!"
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