Hot summer boosts rare bird numbers and harvest at Wheldrake Ings nature reserve

Tern Chick at Wheldrake Ings (C) Lucy Murgatroyd

Rare birds have flourished at Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s Wheldrake Ings reserve near York this year thanks to the dry weather this spring.

Ten pairs of corncrake have bred in the wider Lower Derwent Valley National Nature Reserve and it is thought that two pairs have nested at Wheldrake Ings. The reserve is especially important because these corncrakes are England’s only population of non-introduced birds.

Corncrakes were once common and widespread, but agricultural changes have led to their disappearance throughout Britain. These days, they are mainly confined to around 1000 pairs in the north west Scottish islands,  and were reintroduced to the Nene Washes, Cambridgeshire,  in 2003.  However, it’s too soon to tell if the reintroductions will have long term success, so hopes rest on Wheldrake Ings and the Lower Derwent Valley for helping England’s corncrake population to recover.

Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s reserve manager for Wheldrake Ings Brian Lavelle said; “We’re delighted that corncrakes are doing so well and we have high hopes for establishing the Lower Derwent Valley as England’s main stronghold for them. Good weather in the spring and early summer has certainly helped, but the birds’ fortunes have been raised thanks to a partnership with Natural England, volunteers from the Friends of Lower Derwent Valley and farms throughout the area, through adapting our hay meadow management to help this species flourish.”

Other rare ground nesting birds including water rails and curlew have also broke recent breeding records at Wheldrake Ings. There were four breeding pairs of curlew, compared to only two pairs in recent years. This is of particular interest as curlews are undergoing a steep decline elsewhere in Britain and Ireland. Common terns have bred for the second year following the installation of tern rafts, which were provided by the Friends of the Lower Derwent Valley - two pairs have bred in the valley this year.

Yorkshire Wildlife Trust worked with local farmers to delay meadow cutting in some areas to protect the nesting birds but elsewhere, a bumper hay crop has since been harvested. In recent years, there have been higher water levels and more spring flooding which has washed out the nests of birds such as curlew. Last year, much of Wheldrake’s hay crop was cut but could not be harvested due to unseasonably wet conditions, meaning damage would have been caused to the fragile habitat. Yorkshire Wildlife Trust believe this year’s exceptional harvest could turn out to be the best crop in over ten years, with dry conditions meaning areas that are usually too wet, are accessible for cutting.

Brian added; “The fabulous dry spell has made it a bumper year for harvesting the meadow. This will encourage next year’s meadow flowers to put on a particularly colourful display and create an abundance of seeds and insects – the  main food source for many of the birds- so they can again successfully raise their young. Less welcome though are the continued drought conditions, which are making it difficult for some birds to find food, with hard-baked ground preventing species such as curlew from accessing worms in the soil.”

Wheldrake Ings lies in the Lower Derwent Valley National Nature Reserve and is one of England’s last remaining floodplain meadows. Yorkshire Wildlife Trust works closely with Natural England – who own and manage much of the wider Lower Derwent Valley National Nature Reserve - farmers and volunteer groups.  It is a popular reserve with birdwatchers, especially in winter when the river Derwent floods the meadows, creating perfect conditions for huge numbers of wintering wildfowl and waders.  It is also an important site for bird ringing, which helps conservationists to study and track the movement of the thousands of migratory birds which use the site.