2013 marks the 75th anniversary of the work of WTSWW in the west of its patch. As this November sees the 30th Pembrokeshire Birdwatchers Conference we thought this was a good opportunity to look back to a report of one of the very early conferences in 1986.

West Wales Trust for Nature Conservation Bulletin No. 43 April 1987

The Third Pembrokeshire Birdwatchers Conference BTO/WWTNC 29th November 1986

WWTNC logo 1987We were welcomed by Stuart Devonald to the very hall where the first meeting of the West Wales Field Society took place, and promptly whisked away to Belize, Central America. Peter Tithcott of the RAF Ornithological Society and a very active Trust member showed us round some of the coastal wetlands and secondary jungle in a delightfully relaxing way. He introduced the audience to the enormous range of attractive and often bizarre species to be found in Belize. Birds such as the Ferruginous Pygmy Owl and the Great North Royal Flycatcher were particularly appealing when viewed in the hand. The latter has a very large bill, and an unusual fan-like crest which opens across the bird’s nodding head, not just during display, but also when the bird is handled. We also learnt of two birds which have been vital to the film industry of the New World; the Kiskadee, heard in most Westerns, and the Toddy Flycatcher which must have been in every bird cartoonist’s mind.

The new Conservation Officer of the West Wales Trust, Holly Taylor, brought us closer to home with a thorough tour of birds on the WWTNC Reserves. Even excluding the islands which, she suggested, must surely form a conference theme in themselves (the Fourth Pembrokeshire Birdwatchers…?) this proved a difficult task in the time available. Holly concentrated on some of the management problems, histories and plans to improve these reserves for birds. Water management figured prominently at Dowrog Common and Marloes Mere, while the importance of farm grazing strategies for the Choughs on Cemaes Head was stressed. There was also a need for continued monitoring of species on all our reserves (e.g. the reduction of Kittiwakes due to pleasure-craft near St Margaret’s Island was only spotted because of Steve Sutcliffe’s regular counts). Pembroke Upper Millpond and Pengelly Forest were two reserves where Common Bird Census data were proving useful in making management decisions, in addition to contributing to schemes of national significance to bird conservation.

There followed two lectures which were both provocative and important. Graham Walker’s presentation was not merely a plug for Cambrian Bird Tours, but an expertly argued case for looking at wildlife as a resource. With the demise of the ‘bucket and spade’ holiday in much of Wales, local people will have to decide on and then lobby their Councils as to what sort of investment they want to see in Pembrokeshire tourism, if any. Graham was critical of insensitive or inaccurate advertising of bird holidays and constructively suggested more investment in hides and interpretive facilities. He gave figures which suggested wildlife holidays to be not only a large market, particularly for foreign visitors, but also less dependent on good weather than traditional holidays. Above all, we were reminded of the uniqueness of much of West Wales’ wildlife and of our internationally important seabird (and Grey Seal) populations. He made a strong case for both sensitive management and for increased exploitation of birds by reminding us of the extent to which Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda depend on wildlife tourism, and by citing Israel as a nation which has successfully created from scratch a wildlife tourist industry.

Roger Lovegrove of the RSPB pointed out that they were very aware of the requirements of the 11 million people who visit Wales each year. The Ynyslas Reseve is due to be improved to handle up to 20,000 visitor per year. New reserves in the upper Swansea Valley, Tawe and Mawddach areas are imminent, as are the Valley on Anglesey, a ‘northern estuary’ and an ‘upland heath moorland’. But these acquisitions must not allow us to become complacent. In particular, Roger warned of the continued erosion of wetlands, intertidal flats and uplands, giving examples of species (e.g. Snipe, Black Grouse) or sites (e.g. Dee, Taff) where there was cause for concern. Over 260 Black Grouse, for example, were detected in 1986 at 91 leks, but half of these locations were occupied by only one Blackcock. This is worrying in a species which displays communally.

Under the Chairmanship if Bob Haycock, Graham Rees gave the first talk after lunch, his subject being the WWTNC Breeding Birds of Pembrokeshire Survey. The background to this survey lies partly in Graham’s own keen interest, I suspect, in the ebb and flow of different species’ status through time. Again and again he quoted early authors such as Bertram Lloyd and Ronald Lockley on just how common or rare various species used to be only a few decades ago. It is sobering to think that while Cetti’s Warbler is determinedly colonising Pembrokeshire, and the Nuthatch has increased from one at Slebech in 1893, through 15 localities in 1920, to its widespread distribution in parkland today, the Curlew appears to have declined ‘everywhere’ in scattered small numbers to a position where probably only 20 pairs now breed on the mainland. Similarly, both Grasshopper Warbler and Sedge Warbler have crashed. The aim of the survey is not just to record current status and distribution (and so update the County Avifauna), but it also hopes to quantify the densities of breeding birds, which is paradoxically most error prone for commoner birds. For this, the tetrads’ area (2.2km square) where breeding is proven for each bird may be multiplied up by the density of that species on up to eight detailed sample plots. Thus we learn that there are 7,000 Carrion Crows and between 21,000 and 34,000 pairs of Chaffinches in Pembrokeshire. Hard data are not easily gained, so it will be no surprise to lean that volunteer observers are always required for schemes like this to work. Get in touch with Graham or the Trust office in time for the 1987 season if you want to help. It’s very easy and enjoyable to make a significant contribution to something almost impossible for one person even with Graham Rees’ determination to contemplate.

Peter Davis of the NCC is well known for his work on Red Kites, but talked on Buzzards and Ravens in a wide study area centred on Montgomeryshire. NCC data on changes in sheep farming and performance of Buzzards and Ravens illustrates the high degree of correlation of, for example, the numbers of sheep deaths with birds’ brood size and density. Sheep remains are the ubiquitous component of pellets of Red Kite, Buzzard and Raven. The innovation of lambing sheds has reduced lamb mortality. In addition, the advance of pine forest has been responsible for both habitat change and reduction in food supply. Over half of the original sheepwalk in the upper Towy valley went under forest between 1948 and 1970. In response, both Raven and Buzzard have shifted their preference for nest sites towards spruce and Scots Pine. Ravens are not breeding at a reduced density in the conifers but there has been a suggestion of reduced brood size. The importance of these birds’ performance in mid-Wales lies in the fact that this area is a core habitat which was, therefore, vital to the birds’ survival through the period of maximum persecution by gamekeepers some 200 years ago.

Mike Shrubb also took a somewhat historical perspective in his BTO lecture ‘Birds and Agricultural Development’. He challenged the popular misconceptions that post-war British farming is somehow unique, and that habitat loss is the most important impact on bird populations, by asserting that the present day ‘agricultural revolution’ is but the latest in a series of such revolutions, this means that the present trend to increase in the tillage/grass ratio is measured against the very high grassland areas of the 1930s. If we look further back, we can see that the 1930s situation was, in fact, rather unusual as there was more land under grass in 1930 than during the early Enclosure movement of the 17th Century. In 1870 more of Britain was arable than it is today. One of the conclusions of this argument seemed to be that we should not be too concerned about the short-term fluctuations in numbers of farmland Redshank, for example, since this was an opportunistic species which responds to cycles in farmland management and has and effective alternative, coastal habitat.

From discussion of common birds the last speaker of the conference, Peter Lansdowne, of the British Birds Rarities Committee, took us took us colourfully and unashamedly into the realm of the ‘Twitcher’. The Scillies in October can be an almost knee-deep in rarities from all points of the compass, it seems. The fact that the islands are definitely knee-deep in Twitchers does not appear to put off these birds. By any standards, birding is truly remarkable, and serves to remind us, perhaps, of the thrill of the chase and the tick which sparks off ornithology as a science and hobby for so many. Tim Davies of the BTO closed this very successful conference amid a clamour of informal discussion and much attendance of BTO and WWTNC stalls.

David I Little

Field Studies Council