What's up on the Downs this summer?
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Space for Nature newsletter, summer 2016

There's been a lot happening up on the Marlborough Downs, not least the longest run we've had at harvest for many a year!  Apart from that, our farmland bird project goes from strength to strength, we're continuing to make space for bees and wildflowers, we've been hosting and attending all sorts of workshops, workdays and events, and there is plenty more to come.

We're currently rebuilding our website so we can manage it in-house and so update it regularly, so watch this space for the launch date!  Alongside this we'll continue to post news, photos and information about events on our facebook page.  You don't need a facebook account to keep an eye on it, so make sure you don't miss anything - there are even webcam links to nestboxes!

In the meantime, scroll down for news of:

  • Stone curlew and quail
  • Bees
  • Wildflowers
  • North Wessex Downs
  • Funding
  • Events
Stone curlew breeding success on the Downs

A couple of months ago Matt Prior, Nick Tomalin (RSPB) and I were up on the Downs with a very special little chap (or chappette) – one of our stone curlew eggs had become a very healthy chick! At three weeks old it was time for us to get better acquainted for a very brief time, while Nick and Matt fitted the chick with rings, the unique pattern of which will enable full identification from a distance. This means that we’ll be able to follow our bird’s movements in future years and so contribute to our understanding of the ecology and distribution of the species as a whole. We also took measurements of beak length and weighed the bird, who remained calm and composed the whole time as you can see from the pictures.

A week or so later, Nick went back to check on the little family and found the chick fit, healthy and on the verge of fledging, which it did in the next few days. The birds may have then moved on or the adults may have tried for a second brood. Either way we're tremendously excited about this, our second recent stone curlew breeding success after over 40 years absence ... we must be doing something right!

NB All monitoring and recording is carried out under licence as part of the conservation work done by the RSPB Wessex Stone Curlew Project working with Space for Nature farmers and Wiltshire Ornithological Society.

Bird of the season - the common quail

Another little-seen though sometimes heard bird that visits the Downs is the common quail.  The quail is a small, ground-nesting gamebird, its feathers are a buff-brown colour, with darker markings on its back and wings. 

The farmlands of Wiltshire are considered to be something of a stronghold for this summer visitor, flying in from as far away as southeast Asia, northern Africa and even sub-Saharan Africa, under the cover of darkness. 
Once here, quail make best use of the farmland habitat.  Although generally described as a grassland species, they will also use fields of small grain crops as nesting cover, though they prefer the open landscape and will avoid hedgerows and woodland edge.
They are mostly seed eaters, but often feed on small insects. The females will eat a lot more insects during the breeding season, the extra protein allowing them to be able to rear a brood successfully. 

The males arrive at suitable breeding sites before the females and establish a territory. When the females arrive, they will select a suitable site and locate the male through calling, after which the male sets about his display routine, dancing in circles around the female with a drooped wing.
The female will lay up to 12 eggs in a loose nest made of grass on the ground.  They may produce one or two clutches per season, the eggs taking around 17 days to hatch. Chicks are precocial (well developed and active shortly after hatching), and fly after around 19 days.
The common quail is classified under the IUCN Red List as Least Concern, due to its large range and population. However, the population does appear to be declining, mainly due to hunting pressures in some Mediterranean regions and droughts throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Other factors affecting the population are agricultural intensification, widespread pesticide use and disappearance of uncultivated areas. Quail are regularly heard up on the Downs though, so keep an ear open for them this harvest - listen here to their call.
Making space for bees

We now have SfN bee hives on Shepherds Farm, Temple Farm and Maisey Farm, with more on their way to East Farm, Fiddlers Hill, Manor Farm Berwick Bassett and Fyfield Farm - not bad in just two seasons!  As well as helping to pollinate crops, honey bees transfer 'wild' pollen and nectar which means that there are more flowers for wild pollinators too, good news all round.  If you'd like some hives on your farm, get in touch and we'll match you up with a local beekeeper.  No money changes hands and rent is paid in honey and a bottle of something warming at Christmas!
A new wildflower meadow for the Marlborough Downs

Back in the autumn of 2013, following a light cultivation, we broadcast wildflower seed across a very boring grass field on the Rockley Manor Estate.  We rolled it in and pretty much the next day it started to rain and, if you remember, it didn't stop until February.  And then it didn't start again until July!  Not the best germination conditions, and everyone was very sorry for me when we found just one kidney vetch plant that summer. - oh dear, what a pity it didn't work.  I had faith though, and patience and this summer have been rewarded by the most wonderful display of wildflowers, including oxeye daisy, scabious, knapweed, birdsfoot trefoil, and salad burnet.  I think that's a pretty good result myself and look forward to seeing what comes up next year!
Easy to see where we left a border without wildflower seed as a control area
             Before ................... and after!
Space for Nature funding update

As you know, we have a Countryside Stewardship Scheme Facilitation Fund grant of £24k per year to cover management and overheads relating to biodiversity and heritage activities, including workshops, events, demonstrations, training, etc.  

While Defra remains for the time being in 'purdah', we continue to seek funding for individual farms via the mid and higher tiers of the Countryside Stewardship Scheme.  If you'd like more information about this, please do get in touch.

We are enormously grateful to the trustees of the Kilcreggan Trust who have donated £50,000 to the Space for Nature project.  This will be used
a) to establish a private nature reserve for the purposes of demonstration, education, research and monitoring; and
b) to support and extend our farmland bird programme.  

We also extend our thanks to Thames Water for another £250 grant to buy high energy bird seed to supplement donated grain; to the Co-op who contributed towards the cost of Open Farm Sunday; and to Cardwave in Devizes and the RAU for volunteer time on practical activities.

So far this year we've also received £1300 in donations given at events (see below), some of which has been used to cover event expenses while some is still in reserve.  While this is a very useful source of funding for our community and outreach ambitions, it's far short of what we need to deliver a full programme of events and activities as we have done in the past.  One of the ways we might address this is by a voluntary membership subscription as discussed at the Spring Celebration - details of this to follow.
Upcoming events

We have a number of events planned for the next few months but our timetable isn't full so if there's something you'd like us to organise do get in touch, especially if it's something you'd be willing to help organise.  All our events are posted on our facebook events page so keep an eye open for things that might interest you.

If you'd like to attend an event or workshop please call 01380 871012 or email to book a place.

We also list partner events, such as ....
For more information on this event please visit the
Stonehenge and Avebury website.
Past events

Sadly we had to abandon the ever-popular Owl Prowl this year due to lack of owls - too warm in Scandinavia for them to bother making the journey to the Marlborough Downs!  However, we've had a number of successful events over the late spring and summer months, including volunteer days to plant a tree sparrow corridor between Rockley Manor Estate and Temple Farm, and to install a bridle gate on Manor Farm, Avebury Trusloe.  
The Dawn Chorus Walk at Manor Farm Berwick Bassett drew an even bigger crowd this year, and we had a good turnout for the second Avebury Heritage Walk, also in April. Another group got together to Cycle the Downs in May, taking in Upper Herdswick Farm and the Three Trees Farm Shop and Cafe.
As always, trailer rides were the biggest hit on Open Farm Sunday
We had a fantastic Summer Farm Walk at East Farm, and despite the very British weather we enjoyed the barbecue and dancing in our wellies and raincoats!  We had rain and shine again when we visited the Allerton Project up in Leicestershire where we learnt about recycling, agroforestry, biobeds and farmland birds.  Our final event before harvest was the annual Butterfly Walk at Barbury Castle Country Park.
A welcome breakfast after the Dawn Chorus Walk
June saw out fourth Open Farm Sunday, this year at Manor Farm Avebury Trusloe, hosted by the Butlers with lots of support from Suzie Swanton passing on the the benefit of her experience.  Thanks to everyone who helped make it a fabulous day: 1400+ people through the gate, £650 in donations - a tonne of high energy bird seed!
An interesting visit to GWCT's research farm in Loddington
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