Fears for the future of Britain’s wildlife, revealed in the first report of its kind by scientists from 25 wildlife organisations, has been described as a vital “wake-up call” by Henry Oliver, director of North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
This is an area of 668 square miles that takes in the Marlborough Downs, the third largest AONB in the country, which is itself tackling the problems highlighted by the ground-breaking State of Nature report.
It reveals that 60 per cent of the species studied have declined over recent decades. More than one in ten of all the species assessed are under threat of disappearing from the UK altogether — and this trend is worryingly mirrored throughout the AONB area.
A large proportion of land in the south east is farmland, which supports a wide range of animals and plants. However, some of our farmland species are amongst the fastest declining.
For example, the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust reports that corn buntings and turtle doves have declined by 90 per cent and 89 per cent respectively since 1970, while 14 per cent of all farmland flowering plants are on the national red danger list.
There are no records of tree sparrows currently breeding in Berkshire and there hasn’t been since 1996, although back in the early 1970s they were widespread as a breeding bird throughout the county.
Volunteers in Wiltshire are now hand-crafting tree sparrow nesting box ‘villages’ to encourage tree sparrows to return to the area to breed more freely.
“This is a wake-up call to all those who enjoy our beautiful surroundings and care for our natural habitat,” Mr Oliver told Marlborough News Online.
“However, we are on the case. Our Farmland Bird Initiative is helping local farmers to protect a range of rare and threatened birds. The Marlborough Downs Nature Improvement Area (MDNIA) are doing fantastic work for wildlife and the environment through agri-environment schemes.
“Landowners throughout North Wessex Downs, who have signed up to environmental stewardship schemes, play a vital role in supporting key species and habitats, as well as making the countryside attractive and accessible for the public.”
The Marlborough Downs, he pointed out, is part of a nature improvement area set up by the farmers themselves, to protect and encourage birds such as lapwings, yellow wagtail, corn bunting, tree sparrow and turtle doves and the creation of new dew ponds on the Downs.
Public events are also being organised to raise public awareness ranging from farm walks to conservation days.
“What’s happening is pretty positive,” he said. “It’s the government’s idea that you can’t do conservation on the basis of a penny packet nature reserve scale. What you really need to do is tackle a much wider area.
“And if you look across our area you’ve got the Marlborough Downs nature improvement area, that links into our second project which runs down through the Vale of Pewsey to Salisbury Plain and Cranbourne Chase.
“Then on the edge of our area we’ve got another initiative which is run by the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust.
“We also support small scale, generally community-led projects through our sustainable development fund. This is by way of small grants for projects like helping to set up Marlborough’s communities market and we also helped to set up the Friends of the Railway Path.
“In terms of wildlife the projects, we have helped to set up in and around Marlborough is the work at Stonebridge Lane, doing the broadwalk there. We helped to fund through Action River Kennet (ARK) the work that needs to be done.”
There is even an innovative bat detector project in Hungerford which allows people on night walks to pick up bat squeaks and translate them into a level for the human ear.
Some of the most important work is being done by Diane White, an RSPB officer who works from AONB’s Hungerford headquarters as part of the North Wessex Farmland Bird Project.
“What Diane does is to go to farms whose land has potential of protecting and improving the populations of key bird species which are particularly threatened but also have strongholds in this area,” explained Mr Oliver.
“The have the chance to choose one of a number of options which will help these birds, things like strips along the edges of fields to provide nectar plants which will then attract insects, which the birds can feed their chicks on when they’re rearing them.
“Nesting drops in the middle of fields for stone curlew, skylark, lapwing that don’t get ploughed or harvested so that the birds can next without getting chopped up by machines. “And the skylark needs almost a landing strip because they won’t fly into standing corn or barley, so they have to have an open bit they can land on before they can go in and find their nests.
“They are mainly ground nesting birds which makes them particularly vulnerable to machinery, crows and badgers.
Advice is also given to farmers on protecting rivers and streams from runoff soil and silt and in conserving rare flowers because, things like once familiar poppy, corn marigold and cornflower.”