We planned to leave early but at first light it was blowing a gale and lashing with rain – going back to bed seemed a better option. I phoned Tom who was quite unperturbed saying, “Lets go, it might be different down there.” And it was.
Tom is my son-in-law and a warden at the RSPB’s Ynys-hir nature reserve, which is about 15 minutes drive from here. Along with my eldest son Owen we had planned a trip to look for lesser spotted woodpeckers, one of Ynys-hir’s star birds. On the drive there we encounter dramatic flooding where the high tide has met overnight rain pouring down the Dyfi from the hills above. A train teetered uncertainly towards Aberystwyth along an embankment through the flooded fields – it felt like Armageddon. But when we pull into the sheltered car park all is tranquil: the wind had dropped, the rain ceased and the birds are singing.
At Ynys-hir, above the bog-land and grazing marshes of the Dyfi estuary, are a series of wooded and rocky ridges where the oak trees are distinctively twisted, as if from the effort of clinging to the bedrock. Arthur Rackham could have drawn this rumpled and mysterious terrain. The woodland is extensive, which is just what lesser spotted woodpeckers like. I had always assumed these sparrow-sized birds were out there somewhere and doing fine, but recently conservationists have realised that their numbers are much diminished. There may only be about 2000 pairs remaining in the UK, although nobody is really sure. The difficulty is that these small birds are very elusive: occupying a territory of perhaps 500 hectares they cling to twigs and upper branches, picking through the moss and bark for small invertebrates. This makes cold searching for ‘lesser spots’ a needle in a haystack sort of business. Tom tells me of a man he knows who has been trying to see one for 14 years, so far without success. Apparently your best chance is to hear them calling or drumming in the early spring – which is why we are here.
More in hope than expectation we ramble around these beautiful woods for an hour or two, peering and listening intently, but we don’t get a whisper. In truth, apart from ensuring a good supply of standing dead wood (don’t tidy up), there is not much conservation managers can do for lesser spotted woodpeckers. This is a bird that is out there somewhere living as it always has, whether or not we understand the reasons for its decline.
To compensate for our lack of success with the woodpeckers Tom offers to take us out onto the grazing marshes in his pick-up; this is a part of the reserve the public don’t usually get to, so we jump at the chance. The contrast after the muffled woods is dramatic: this land is three-quarters sky and straight-line flat. Gateposts are landscape features here. Tom (a proud Suffolk man) is clearly in his element in this bleak expanse and I tease him that he has somehow found a corner of East Anglia for himself amongst the Welsh hills. Flocks of golden plover, teal and lapwing swirl around us and we get a distant glimpse of the rare of Greenland white-fronted geese which overwinter here. A fine male merlin sits neat and lethal on a fencepost for us to drool over.
Apart from the wintering wildfowl and waders the main interest for the RSPB on these grasslands is the breeding lapwings. This was a common, and much loved, farmland bird until 40 years ago; it still shocks me to realise that in Wales they are now largely confined to about half a dozen nature reserves like this one. The causes of their demise are complex but revolve around changes in agriculture, both arable and pastoral, and an increase in predators, particularly crows and foxes. Lapwings like it damp to ensure a supply of invertebrate prey, so an intricate network of ditches, sluices and pipes have been installed here to redistribute the rainwater to where it is needed – the complexities of which Tom seems to carry in his head. Lapwings don’t like clumps of rushes: rather than hide from predators they prefer a clear view of what’s coming. So as well as getting the grazing levels right Tom treats the ubiquitous rushes with a herbicide, using a tractor powered weed-wipe. The biggest threat of all to lapwing breeding success is predation of eggs and chicks by foxes and crows. To deter the foxes a six-foot high fence, dug into the ground at the bottom and electrified at the top, surrounds this area of grazing land. A fence like this costs tens of thousands of pounds. Remote camera traps have shown foxes patrolling around the fence, searching for any weakness. Tom tells me he once saw a fox tossing lapwing chicks in the air like beanbags; he loses sleep over the thought of one getting in during the breeding season. Crows are perhaps an even bigger problem: there is no way to keep them out. Systematic culling of foxes and crows is often integral to managing breeding lapwing populations these days – although not currently at Ynys-hir.
Lapwings would be more or less extinct in Wales if it wasn’t for the kind of dedicated, intensive management that is being done at Ynys-hir: expensive, time consuming work that raises dilemmas about the use of chemicals, killing predators, and enclosing wild birds with fencing. In truth there isn’t much different between this fence and those at safari parks or Whipsnade zoo. But if we want to keep the beautiful and evocative ‘peewit’ sound of breeding lapwings tumbling through the sky then these are the lengths we have to go to, at least for now.
The contrast between these two declining birds could not be greater: the lesser spotted woodpeckers are in a more or less natural environment and largely beyond our reach, whilst the lapwings are close to being farmed. In our drastically modified countryside it is sometimes hard to know what ‘wild’ means anymore.