Former quarry becomes refuge for endangered British birds

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Earth (United Kingdom) (AFP) – Nature reclaims its territory in a quarry in the east of England which turns into a vast reserve offering a vital sanctuary to endangered birds.

With its wet reed beds, the swampy Fens plain outside Cambridge has become an attractive habitat for Secret Bittern, which until 2015 was on the UK’s Red List of most endangered species.

Today the stocky heron, with its perfectly camouflaged streaky brown plumage and a booming spring call that looks like someone blowing on the top of a bottle, is on the list of amber, less critical but still endangered. .

“It’s really a demonstration of how working with partners – big, big, decisive action – we can take species off this Red List,” said Chris Hudson, senior site director at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) Ouse Fen Nature Reserve, approximately 120 kilometers (80 miles) north of London.

Chris Hudson, Senior Site Manager (left): “This is really a demonstration of how working with partners – big, big, decisive action – we can get species off this Red List” Justin TALLIS AFP

Although the elusive bird did not make an appearance during AFP’s visit on a swift, rainy January winter morning, five percent of UK bitterns now nest in Ouse Fen.

The reserve’s bittern population is now larger than the national total in the mid-1990s, when the RSPB’s endangered species list was first published, Hudson said, binoculars still standing.

Insect decline

The latest edition of Birds of Conservation Concern was released in December 2021 and now includes 70 Red List species, more than double the number when the first report was released in 1996.

About 30 percent of the British Isles’ 245 bird species are now endangered.

New species on the list include the house swallow and the fast migrating birds that fly thousands of kilometers (miles) from central and southern Africa each spring to breed in Europe.

Richard Gregory from the RSPB:
Richard Gregory from RSPB: “When you protect habitats and protect birds, they can bounce back right away” Justin TALLIS AFP

Richard Gregory, head of monitoring at the RSPB Center for Conservation Science, attributes the population decline primarily to land use change in the UK, Europe and beyond, which is depriving birds of food and habitat.

“The decline of these birds could tell us something about a huge decline in insect biomass, which has recently been of real concern to conservationists across Europe, and is probably a much larger phenomenon,” did he declare.

“So we need more research, but it’s a real warning sign of how the environment is changing around us.

“But we also know that when you manage habitats, when you protect habitats and when you protect birds, they can bounce back right away,” said Gregory, citing the example of the “magnificent” white-tailed eagle, which was extinct in the British Isles at the start of the 20th century.

Thanks to a protection and reintroduction program, this imposing bird of prey is no longer on the Red List and there are now at least 123 pairs of these great sea eagles in the UK.

Make the right conditions

In the Ouse Fen reserve in early January, there were once rare large white egrets from the heron and marsh harrier family, an endangered bird of prey whose numbers have rebounded thanks to decades of conservation efforts.

A great egret in flight over the RSPB Ouse Fen reserve
A great egret in flight over the RSPB Ouse Fen reserve Justin TALLIS AFP

The mix of reed beds, open water and meadows, opened in 2010 and visited by 20,000 people a year, is being restored from land that served as the largest sand and gravel quarry in Europe.

Over the life of the current project, approximately 28 million tonnes of aggregate is extracted from the ground, leaving holes that are now filled with water and reeds, much to the birds’ delight.

“Our job here was to recreate the right habitat conditions that would bring bittern back,” Hudson said. These include “a lot of feeding opportunities to get their prey like fish, and especially eels”.

“Once we put those conditions in place, it actually brings the birds back. ‘If you build it, they’ll come’ is the phrase we use quite often.”

Mute swans at the Ouse Fen reserve.  Mother Nature takes back her throne in a former quarry in eastern England
Mute swans at the Ouse Fen reserve. Mother Nature takes back her throne in a former quarry in eastern England Justin TALLIS AFP

Humans are changing the landscape, creating bodies of water and planting reeds, “and then nature will take care of the rest and come back just naturally if given the opportunity, and that’s really the point”, did he declare.

“Give nature a chance and she will come back.”


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