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Vision calls for largest downland network in Europe

RSPB initiative hails importance of MoD sites at Porton Down and Salisbury Plain

The launch today (Thursday 19 June) of a wildlife charity’s vision for the future of an iconic part of the English countryside has highlighted the importance of MoD sites for nature conservation.

The RSPB’s Wiltshire Chalk Country initiative will encompass land at Porton Down and Salisbury Plain on which a huge variety of wildlife depends; it calls for an alliance of farmers and landowners to help bring about the charity’s vision to increase the amount of chalk grassland in the county. Around 80% of the country’s chalk grassland has disappeared during the last century, but half of what remains is in Wiltshire – the largest chunks of which are on the MoD sites.The RSPB says that the county is arguably the best location in the UK for a landscape-scale recreation of the habitat and, that it could have major benefits for tourism, water quality and giving people the opportunity for a healthier lifestyle. Good quality chalk grassland is capable of supporting more than 40 species of plant per square metre, is home to dozens of species of butterflies and other insects and is also a rich feeding and breeding ground for a variety of farmland birds – a group recognised to be in need of help to avert significant declines.

Wiltshire chalk grassland, specifically, also hosts almost a third of the UK population of a rare bird, the stone-curlew. The species had declined to just 11 pairs in the county in 1989 but it has made an astounding comeback – there are now more than 85 pairs – thanks to an RSPB-led project and the efforts of the MoD and Porton Down-operators Dstl, along with other landowners and farmers in the area. The RSPB has worked with the MoD in Wiltshire for around 20 years, but the launch of its vision for the county’s landscape, aimed at reconnecting the remaining chalk grassland, has prompted a celebration of collective achievements for biodiversity, which it hopes will be an inspiration for even more to be done.

The RSPB’s Head of Countryside Conservation, Sue Armstrong-Brown, said: “Military ownership of Porton Down and Salisbury Plain has protected them from the changes that have seen most of England’s chalk downland disappear and has allowed vital conservation work to take place. These places are windows into the past and, perhaps, the future. If we can work together to extend downland across areas more accessible to the public, if the scattered fragments can be reconnected, then we will once again be able to look out on the stunning, wildlife-rich landscape our ancestors enjoyed.” Porton Down has the highest density of stone-curlews of anywhere in the UK, with around 10% of the UK population packed into little over 2,000 hectares. Salisbury Plain is home to more of the birds, but they are spread over a much wider area.

The RSPB’s work at Porton Down includes an agreement with one of Dstl’s tenants to manage 50 hectares of land at Suddern Hill reverting the area back to downland.

Dstl Conservation Officer, Stuart Corbett, said: “We’re assisting the RSPB with this project by supplying ‘green hay’ which is being taken from our own fields managed for the benefit of chalk grass downland plants. This hay will contain seeds which when spread will allow these once arable fields to revert into species rich downland.”Wildlife on Salisbury Plain has previously been supported by EU Life funding for work to increase stone-curlew numbers and the birds are now thriving at the site. The MoD also commissioned the RSPB to carry out breeding bird surveys of the site and to suggest methods for maintaining and improving conditions for wildlife on the Plain.

Defence Estates environmental adviser, Julie Swain, said: “Management for stone-curlews on the Salisbury Plain Training Area is undertaken at key times of the year by our Agricultural Team to ensure this rare species can continue to nest and successfully fledge young. This management, together with ongoing monitoring by DE and RSPB staff, is a priority for us to ensure the favourable status of the species and the SPA.”

The RSPB is launching the Wiltshire Chalk Country initiative with an event in Amesbury today, followed by a visit to its Normanton Down nature reserve – a site which demonstrates how working with private landowners has already paid off for wildlife.Lapwings, corn buntings and barn owls all breed at the site, and it is vitally important for nesting and roosting stone-curlews. Wildlife at Normanton Down won a reprieve recently with the shelving of plans to build a bypass as a solution to traffic problems on the A303 past Stonehenge.

At the charity’s other Wiltshire nature reserve, Winterbourne Downs, it is carrying out one of the largest single programmes of chalk grassland creation in the UK. It is hoped that a whole variety of wildlife will benefit from work at the site, including projections that it will in time provide breeding habitat for at least five pairs of stone-curlews.

RSPB South West Regional Director, Tony Richardson, said: “We’re hoping that the launch of this initiative will help us build on the work we’ve already done in partnership with the MoD, Dstl and others, as well as offering a chance to share our collective experience of restoring and re-creating chalk grassland. Only by working together will we be able to reconnect with this remarkable habitat and enjoy the beauty of its stunning natural and cultural heritage.”

4th July 2014