Ed Hutchings discovers an often-overlooked birding county
Salisbury Plain may be famous for its archaeology and historic landmark, Stonehenge, but it’s also hugely important for birds and other wildlife
KELETAL SHAPES LITTER Salisbury Plain. They are not stones, but wrecked tanks. Soldiers are a permanent presence. Military exercises are conducted on the extensive plain every day of the year, and the majority include live firing. It is a wonder anything survives here at all, yet this is indeed a haven for wildlife. Its inaccessibility is its saving grace. A quarter of the 300 square miles of Salisbury Plain (half of it owned by the MOD) are protected conservation sites. The plain supports the largest known expanse of unimproved chalk downland in north-west Europe and represents roughly 40% of Britain’s remaining area of this internationally threatened habitat. Numerous species of nationally rare or scarce plants and invertebrates find refuge here. The entire area is a Special Protection Area for birds. The overall breeding assemblage is exceptionally diverse for a British dry grassland site, including healthy populations of Quail, Hobby and Stonecurlew. Other important breeders include Buzzard, Barn and Long-eared Owls, Nightingale, Whinchat, Stonechat, Wheatear, Corn Bunting and, on occasion, Montagu’s Harrier. In winter, the plain is an important area for foraging flocks of thrushes, finches and buntings. Together with abundant small mammals, these are prey for wintering Hen Harrier, Merlin and Short-eared Owl. Hen Harrier occur in nationally significant numbers each winter and the plain is an important winter roost for this contentious raptor in southern England. My host for two days, appropriately, was retired
SArmy officer Andrew Bray, who runs Wiltshire Bird Tours. Andrew also leads expeditions for the Army Ornithological Society and was the first person to find a breeding Ascension Frigatebird on the main island since Charles Darwin. We spent the first morning on Salisbury Plain, where Andrew has free rein, within reason. We passed through checkpoints and past military manoeuvres, enjoying the pristine landscape along the way. Driving through the eerie ghost village of Imber, the lonely parish church of St Giles stands testament to a community that sacrificed its homes for ‘Operation Overlord’ training more than 70 years ago. Andrew explained that Wiltshire’s distance from the coast limits its range of birds. Thankfully, the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust maintains more than 40 reserves throughout the county, one of which, Langford Lakes, was our next destination. Consisting of four former gravel pits, with newlycreated islands and developing reed fringes, it has recorded more than 150 species. Summer finds breeding Moorhen, Coot, Gadwall, Pochard, Tufted Duck, Little and Great Crested Grebes on the dozen hectares of open water. The surrounding wet woodland, scrub and chalk river play host to Common Sandpiper, Kingfisher, Grey Wagtail and eight species of warbler. Aquatic mammals such as Otter, Water Vole and Water Shrew also thrive here, not to mention spawning Grayling and Trout. Common wildfowl such as Wigeon, Teal and Shoveler predominate in winter, though Bittern, Little Egret and Water Rail are also found.
The overall breeding assemblage is exceptionally diverse for a British dry grassland site, including healthy populations of Quail, Hobby and Stone-curlew.
The Great Bustard success story
Andrew was keen to show me the Great Meadow wetland, which opened in 2012, in the hope that we might see Sand Martin, Black Tern, Green Sandpiper and other waders on passage. No such luck, but we were rewarded by a fine brace of Ruff. Avian appetites satisfied, it was time for a fortifying lunch at a roadside burger van. Our post-lunch visit was to the beautiful Fonthill Lake, created by damming a tributary of the River Nadder. Situated in the grounds of what was once Fonthill Abbey, a large Gothic revival country house. The lakes hold waterfowl including Mandarin, Mallard, Pochard, Tufted Duck, Coot, Little and Great Crested Grebes. The surrounding mature woodland harbours species such as Chiffchaff, Nuthatch, Treecreeper, Robin and Chaffinch. Various rarities have been recorded here. Fonthill Abbey’s central tower – the most striking aspect of the building – rose to a height of around 300 feet, but it was evidently that bit too grand and collapsed, not once, but three times. Yet it was not even the loftiest tower in these parts. That record belongs to Salisbury Cathedral and its 404-foot spire – the tallest in Britain – and our next stop. The celebrated depiction of the cathedral by John Constable has changed very little in almost two centuries. The timeless view across the water meadows has mercifully escaped development. The cathedral itself is the ancestral home of the ‘urban’ Peregrine, with records dating back to the mid1800s. We climbed the tower to see a very special nest box. In 2014, for the first time in 61 years, a pair bred on the infamous spire. No sign of Falco peregrinus during our visit, but the stupendous view from the top offered recompense. Back on ‘terra firma’, the last port of call for the day had been keenly anticipated by yours truly. Andrew drove me to a beautiful river valley (of which there are many in these parts) for a rendezvous with David Waters, founder and director of The Great Bustard Group. In order not to spook the birds, our host drove us to the release site, filling us in on the project on the way. David, a former policeman, explained that the Army’s use of Salisbury Plain limits human access and for this reason the area had been selected for an experiment to reintroduce Great Bustards to Britain. Formerly native, but still emblazoned on the Wiltshire coat of arms, the species was hunted out of existence by the 1840s. The Great Bustard Project aims to establish a self-sustaining population of these impressive birds in the UK. In 2004, the charity oversaw the reintroduction to Salisbury Plain using eggs taken from Russia. Spanish birds have been used of late, as their genetic study showed them to be closer to the old British stock. After a ‘soft’ release, the bustards live without human interference, with feeding only occurring for a limited period. The birds have nested every year since 2007 and last year saw the highest number released so far at 33. Parking at a respectable distance, we donned large bustard-coloured onesies and slowly made our way towards the release pens. The excited birds soon surrounded us, occasionally taking flight. Big and bulky on the ground, aerodynamics did not seem to be their strong point. Back on the ground, David put out food by the pens. Males surrounded us displaying – I was privileged to be among them, and at close range.
The next morning we headed north to the picturesque Marlborough Downs. Savernake Forest is ancient woodland ‘par excellence’, with one of the largest collections of veteran trees in Britain. One beech avenue, at a whopping four miles long, is the longest in the UK. The forest is a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) for its rare fungi and lichens alone. This is a very special place. There are Red Kites, Sparrowhawks, Buzzards, Woodcocks, owls (I had my most memorable daytime view of a Tawny Owls, here), all three woodpeckers, Willow and Marsh Tits, Jay and a host of other woodland birds. Summer brings breeding Wood Warbler, Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler, Blackcap, Garden Warbler, Spotted Flycatcher, occasional Nightingale, Redstart and Tree Pipit. Finch flocks predominate in winter and may include Brambling, Siskin, redpoll and Hawfinch. Deer, Badgers and Foxes are all here, too. Dragging ourselves from the wilderness, our final destination was somewhere wholly manmade. Straddling the Gloucestershire/wiltshire border, Cotswold Water Park is a complex of over 70 gravel pits, attracting a good variety of birds throughout the year, although wildfowl and passage waders are the main draw. The extraction of gravel since 1920 has left a series of flooded pits in typical lowland farmland. In such a big area, it is hard to single out specific sites, but the Cleveland Lakes (viewable from ‘Twitchers Gate’) are often very productive for wildfowl, while the silt beds (accessed from Waterhay car park) have been the best site in the county for waders for many years. The list of recorded species here is broad but it’s notably good for Smew, Bittern, Hobby and Nightingale.
Great Crested Grebes Buzzard Salisbury Cathedral Barn Owl is among the important breeders of Salisbury Plain