Living Uplands

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Five-Year bird count milestone

26th Jul 2021

Living Uplands has reached a small milestone, with the fifth consecutive bird count with Durham Wildlife Trust. This annual exercise is building a valuable data set of birdlife on a particular section of upland moor.

All the dedicated management of an upland moor remains vulnerable to an episode of extreme weather. It is why good management is essential to mitigate and enhance habitat conditions. However, management only goes so far to help the wild birds to have the best chance to breed, particularly ground-nesting birds. Nature has its own rules.

The weather this past winter has been one of sharp contrasts in this area of Weardale.

It has been colder, duller, and wetter with longer periods of rain and the highest levels of snow in some years. For the birds wintering on the fell, and for those arriving in the Spring, this has been a challenging year. The harsh winter was followed by a very sudden dry and cold spring period. This meant the heather was late, leaving adult birds such as grouse lacking either buds; with the alternative cotton grass also unavailable as a rich protein feed. The lack of rain meant fewer insects and bugs for young birds. Challenging.

What has that meant for birdlife, expressed through our bird count?

The count method means we achieve a simple snapshot of the birds present on the moor, in a particular area. The range and number of birds each year will vary, greatly depending on weather and condition of the habitat.

The best news is that we continue to observe a healthy range of birds and confirm again that the majority of these are red or amber listed as endangered British species.

More importantly we believe that, after five years of counting consistently, there is a carrying capacity of Black Grouse, Curlew, Lapwing, Meadow Pipit and Short-eared Owls - a population large enough to be resilient despite harsh weather conditions. Numbers, however, were not at a peak for any of these species.

Of the fifteen different bird species counted, five are Red listed and six are amber listed. These include in the red category: Black Grouse, Curlew, Lapwing, Skylark and Herring Gull. On the amber list: the Lesser Black Backed Gull, Meadow Pipit, Kestrel, Mallard, and Short Eared Owl.

There are many other birds to be seen on the moorland, but the methodology allows us only to report on those there in the moments at a particular location. No mention then of the nearby Ringed Plover and Ring Ouzel (both Red list endangered).

Weather conditions can have a greater impact on the resident birdlife rather than those that are migratory. Our bird count helps to keep track of what is happening over time, across species, year on year. There is no doubt that were it not for careful land management and predator control the biodiversity of the moorland would be significantly compromised.

Management is a year-round activity, which also means constant eyes and ears on what is happening across the moor - beyond our count zone. Year on year presence means small changes can be noted and sometimes passing points raise interesting questions about what is happening in nature, and why. This year it was noted that there appeared to be greater numbers of curlew nesting further up the moor, on higher ground. This has been noted elsewhere too.

Risk of predation is not greater whether lower on the moor or higher up. Which would suggest it has to with nesting and food source. Is there a factor of it being cooler and a little wetter, providing better source of insects and spiders for the chicks? More grubs and bugs for the adults? And is this a consequence of climate change? It will be some time before we are able to say whether this is a permanent change or simply a short-term shift in nesting patterns.

No matter the challenges, our year-to-year bird count provides ample evidence to celebrate an amazing abundance of bird life and our part in assuring sustainability of the natural, and endangered, heritage of our precious Uplands.

Data provided by