Silent Woods? Not on our watch

Last week you may have seen the news items about lesser spotted woodpeckers and willow tits going on the Rare Breeding Birds Panel monitoring list. It’s a sad but inevitable result of their ongoing declines in British woods and shows how hard both are to find, outside of well-known populations (and I’m not sure you could call the lesser spotted woodpecker easy to find anywhere). I’m sure I’ve mentioned how few of either I saw whilst surveying woodlands for my project this year, and although not all of the woods I visited would ever have been ideal, habitat-wise, I might have expected more than a grand total of one lesser spot, and five willow tits in 290 surveys.

This is entirely anecdotal evidence given how few of the nation’s woods I visited, but I find it interesting that my solitary lesser spotted woodpecker was drumming and calling (never seen by me, alas) from inside a private game wood – similarly, the two willow tit sites where I observed multiple birds were part of large privately owned estates. I’m not saying that shooting pheasants or partridges equals more woodland birds, more that active management of woods, as you find when they are actually used for something, is more likely to create, for example, the kind of new growth that willow tits like. So perhaps you wildlife lovers can tuck into a nice pheasant stew with a relatively clear conscience this autumn – just watch out for those lead pellets.

I did see a solitary bird on the edge of a small public wood in the east of the county, but after reporting it on the Hampshire bird grapevine I learned from a locally based birder that it was the first he’d seen at the site, and the first in the area for many years (it was most reassuring to me that he was able to re-find the bird and confirm the ID that evening!). They tend to be a mostly resident species and neither willow nor marsh tit disperse far, so I can’t really tell you how it got there, but it was singing away, in rather heartbreaking fashion – forlorn solitary willow tits, searching for mates in unfamiliar territory might be the new norm, as colonies decline. Sad times for these personable little sooty-capped birds.

So what is so wrong with publicly-owned woodland? To me, it comes down, once again, to our priorities as a nation, or individually, as landowners, users or consumers. The public outcry surrounding the ‘forest sell-off’ policy earlier this year showed how highly woods are valued, but it seemed to reflect more of a general feeling that trees were a good thing and ought to be a protected public resource (or a reflex reaction against what was perceived as a move by the government to make a quick bit of cash whilst private property barons fenced people out of their favourite dog walking patches) than a genuine understanding of how to conserve woodland biodiversity.

But I would like to think that when people really get to know woodland wildlife, and realise the stakes, they’d be prepared to say it is worth public investment. Willow tits are doing well in some nature reserves (I hear Fairburn Ings RSPB is a good spot, though I haven’t been) and I would still like to see the government incorporate some of the expertise of the conservation NGOs as it attempts to create some good out of its previous policy muddle. In fact, they have made moves to do so, establishing an independent forestry panel that incorporates quite a range of people – from the big bosses of the RSPB and National Trust to the Bishop of Liverpool – and even asked for the views of us, the public. And in fairness to the forestry commission, it is pretty hard to label them as merely a publicly-run timber factory any longer, if you look at some of the work they do for wildlife (albiet hard to find on their website). Also, both of the species under discussion often favour damp woodlands (with plenty of rotting wood in alders and willows, etc. for excavating nest holes – as the name willow tit suggests!), which don’t tend to be in Forestry Commission hands. Before the original policy was dropped the RSPB was calling for the creation of a Forest Wildlife Service, divorcing the timber-producing and nature conservation roles of the Forestry Commission. I for one think this is still worth looking at. Whatever happens, woodland nature lovers should keep an eye out for the forestry panel’s final report in April 2012.

One thing is for sure: if British bird lovers like me want to go on being delighted by the diminutive, sparrow-sized lesser spotted woodpecker (from my limited experience of them there are few more engaging species in Britain) or enjoy the ID challenge of marsh and willow tits (the key is to learn your bird songs), we need to make our voices heard, and ensure that the government responds wisely to whatever the forestry panel recommends next year. It is too late to submit your views formally to the panel, but it is never too late to write a letter and let your MP or Caroline Spelman know how much you care about woods. Perhaps I will get round to it soon. After all, I at least think that healthy woods jumping with birds are worth our tax money, and will provide a longer-lasting legacy for future generations than Chinook helicopters or bank bailouts. What about you?

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