Protecting the Ground Nesting Birds of Greenham and Crookham Common SSSI
6 May 2009 | Katty Baird
Introduction to the Issues
Greenham and Crookham Common is an important breeding site for a number of rare and threatened birds. Some of these are more susceptible to disturbance than others (including dartford warbler, nightjar, woodlark, skylark, meadow pipit, tree pipit, lapwing, little ringed plover and ringed plover) as they build their nests on or close to the ground and are often located in the more open areas that tend to be frequented by visitors.
This leaves these birds particularly vulnerable to disturbance from human visitors (with or without dogs) and with their cryptic colouration, nesting birds can be easily overlooked and therefore unwittingly disturbed even by the most well-intentioned visitors. Brooding adults will flee their nest if disturbed and only return once the perceived danger has passed. During this time the eggs or chicks in the nest are susceptible to chilling and predation, especially from corvids like crows and jackdaws.
Studies at other heathland sites in southern England have shown that birds nesting close to paths are more likely to suffer from disturbance than those on more remote nests and that dogs are often the cause of this disturbance. However, such records of disturbance to a nest do not necessarily result in failure of the eggs to hatch or young to fledge, and there are clearly many other environmental factors that contribute to breeding success. Although there are a number of potential causes of disturbance to ground nesting birds on Greenham Common, dog walkers are one of the main visitors to the common and dogs off leads are the primary concern. A policy has been developed to try and balance the needs of different users of the common whilst helping to protect the important ground nesting birds.
The Common is a registered common permitting open access to all. Therefore striking the balance between users and wildlife is a challenge. All visitors are welcome to enjoy and learn from this wonderful habitat and with careful management it should be possible to control and minimise the impact of visitors to the wildlife on the common.
The Measures in Place
Since opening to the public in 2000, the Common has always had a dogs on lead signage at all entrances. This year builds on this and the approach has been to inform rather than enforce, as anecdotal evidence suggests that most people are genuinely unaware of the wildlife value of the site and the potential damage they can cause through unintentional disturbance. We are asking all visitors, including dog walkers, to be aware of the vulnerable bird species using the common at this time of year, to keep to the main paths and to act responsibly.
Improved Information for Visitors
At every entrance to the common there are colourful information posters outlining 'do's and don'ts' for all visitors and illustrating the birds at risk. Smaller posters have been erected around the really sensitive areas of open gravels asking all to avoid walking through these areas. A leaflet has also been produced with photographs of the most important birds and more details about their conservation status and legislation. These are being handed out to members of the public by the team of wardens. (Examples of these can be found in 'Files' of the Berks Birds Yahoo Group home page)
Regular patrols by two seasonal wardens have started. They will be on duty every day including early mornings and evenings until the end of July. They are funded by the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust (BBOWT) as part of the Living Landscape partnership and will have the responsibility of talking to visitors, explaining the ground nesting birds policy we have developed this year and ensuring that the signs are adhered to. A small team of Volunteer Wardens has also been started and continues to be developed. Along with the site Ranger they will help to patrol as part of their daily visit to the common. The Wildlife Trust Wardens, Volunteer Wardens and the site Ranger will be a very visible presence on the common and will go a long way in getting information across.
The Wildlife Trust and West Berkshire Council's Countryside Service have also been involved with local papers, parish newsletters and radio interviews, with a volunteer helping to write and promote the ground nesting birds policy.
Monitoring of adult birds through the nesting season is currently underway and should give an idea of bird numbers and an indication of breeding success. Data on visitor usage and cooperation will also be collected. These records will be used to gauge the success of the current scheme and to help develop the policy for next year.
The Wildlife Trust and West Berkshire Council's Countryside Service partnership considers the protection of the threatened ground nesting birds on the common a priority. We will look carefully at the effectiveness of the current measures after this season has finished before determining any adjustments to the existing policy. If appropriate, additional measures could include:
- Suggestive or stock type fencing around the sensitive areas
- Closing some access gates to certain areas
- Zoning areas where dogs can be let off the lead on the common and suggestions of other local dog walking areas.
- A mortality study of breeding success
We will continue to chat to visitors, review the policy and hopefully these important birds will continue to breed successfully for many years to come.
This is a learning process for us and we welcome feedback to help us develop the guidance for next year. If you represent a group, would like to gather views from others or simply have a comment or suggestion then we would like to hear from you. Comments have already been taken on board (for example - the posters need to provide clearer information for dog walkers) and will be acted upon next year. Please send comments to the address below.
Greenham and Crookham Commons
West Berkshire Council Countryside Service
Office: 01635 580792
Address: Thatcham Nature Discovery Centre