Opening 'supermarket' for woodland birds

Fifty years ago a forest was planted to provide pit props for the Yorkshire coalfield. Now it is being cut down to create the perfect habitat for threatened woodland birds. Roger Ratcliffe reports.

Any birdwatcher will tell you that serried ranks of conifers rarely provide a worthwhile day out. The density of trees planted close together creates a dark underworld, even in summer, where hardly anything grows and most species of birds can find little worth eating.

Cut down some of the trees to create open glades, however, and birds start to get interested, especially if lumps of timber are left to rot and become home to a rich variety of insect life.

At Langsett Reservoir, on the fringe of the Peak District National Park in South Yorkshire, there has been a classic textbook example of these two kinds of woodland for many years – on the east side, a plantation which had been thinned out and subsequently colonised by bird life, and on the west bank a huge coniferous forest almost devoid of nature.

But in the past couple of weeks the latter forest has been felled with the direct involvement of the RSPB to form a new habitat aimed at attracting over a dozen rare or threatened species of woodland birds.

Langsett Reservoir was opened by Sheffield City Waterworks in 1905 to serve the taps of Sheffield and Barnsley. In the early 1960s a large area of conifers was planted on the west side with the aim of providing timber for pit props in the then-thriving Yorkshire coalfield. Another plantation was established on the east bank in the 1970s.

But the demand from the mining industry never materialised, and both woodlands were left to grow longer than intended. Whilst the current owners, Yorkshire Water, successfully managed the younger woods for wildlife and opened them up for leisure activities like walking, horse riding and mountain biking, the older plantation – known as North America after a nearby farm of the same name – became overgrown and increasingly sterile as far as bird life was concerned.

Geoff Lomas, Yorkshire Water's recreation and catchment manager, says: "A lot of the people who come out to Langsett over Christmas and New Year for a breath of fresh air or to walk the dog may well see the newly felled area of land across the reservoir and think we're being destructive, but in our minds we're being very constructive.

"I can understand why people might say 'oh, you're felling trees when we should actually be saving our greenery'. It all gets mixed up with concerns for prime rainforests and things.

"But this wood has only been here about fifty years, and it was probably the only woodland on the site for many centuries. What we're doing is giving the land a fresh start, one which gives the interests of wildlife top priority."

Like birds usually associated with farmland – species such as yellowhammer, corn bunting, grey partridge and skylark – there is a whole group of birds which depend on woodland or areas of sporadic tree cover for their survival. But both groups have seen their populations falling. Whereas changes to crops, reduced hedgerow and tree cover were the main factors in the declining fortunes of farmland birds, the reasons for woodland birds' problems have been harder to identify.

A total of 16 woodland or woodland-fringe species are considered at risk in the UK. They are: tree pipit, willow tit, marsh tit, wood warbler, willow warbler, garden warbler, tree pipit, wood lark, pied flycatcher, spotted flycatcher, redstart, lesser Redpoll, Hawfinch, lesser spotted woodpecker, woodcock, nightjar and firecrest.

Some species like the lesser spotted woodpecker, spotted flycatcher and willow tit, have seen their British populations cut by half since the 1960s. And while one cause is the loss of habitat in Africa, where many of the birds spent the winter, recent studies in the UK by the RSPB and British Trust for Ornithology have found that local factors in their decline include the increasing age of many UK forests and their lack of wildlife-friendly management work.

This work includes thinning of the tree cover to help sunlight promote new growth, creating glades, and controlled grazing by livestock.

Earlier this year, the Forestry Commission introduced a new grant scheme to help finance work that was specifically targeted at reversing the decline of woodland birds. The Commission's Neil Riddle says the survey work produced by the RSPB showed that the parts of the Peak District National Park were among the UK's hotspots for at-risk woodland bird species.

The idea is to build on these populations of birds, in particular the nightjar, lesser redpoll and tree pipit, and create woodland areas to which these populations can spread and, therefore, increase in numbers. It is hoped that most of the 16 at-risk woodland species will benefit from the Langsett project.

Those involved in the scheme take encouragement from work already carried out at the younger plantation, on the east side of the reservoir. A nest box scheme run jointly by Yorkshire Water and the Barnsley Biodiversity Trust has seen birds like pied flycatcher and nuthatch breeding successfully. And nightjars have bred on another part of Yorkshire Water's catchment around the reservoir.

The new work at Langsett, which is partly funded by the Forestry Commission's Woodland Improvement Grant, involves clear-felling the 60-acre North America plantation of predominantly Sitka spruce and Corsican pines, but leaving some trees standing and others as fallen deadwood.

As soon as possible this spring the area will be replanted with smaller groups of native broadleaved trees like oak and silver birch and some ponds and wetland areas created.

In the short term it won't look pretty, but within a few years the young trees and naturally colonising trees like holly, hawthorn and rowan will provide food, shelter and nesting sites for many of the woodland bird species being targeted.

Jonathan Harker, who is managing the project, says that some dead trees will be left standing to provide food, nesting holes and refuges for some birds.

"Deadwood doesn't look pretty," Yorkshire Water's Mr Lomas says, "but it is almost like a supermarket for many woodland birds."