Won­der­ful Wilt­shire

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents - WORDS: ED HUTCH­INGS

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

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