UK Countryside Scheme Gives Birds Royal Treatment

GLOUCESTERSHIRE, United Kingdom, January 31, 2001 (ENS) - Wild geese and swans wintering at one of Europe's most important wetland nature reserves are dining on specially grown, nutrient rich rye grass under a government scheme to encourage less intensive farming.

The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) manages nearly 100 hectares of farmland at Slimbridge in Gloucestershire. More than 10,000 wintering wildfowl, including the Bewick's swan, wigeon, shoveler, pochard and pintail, visit the site, which lies within the Upper Severn Estuary.


Visitors to Slimbridge can see six species of flamingo. (Photos courtesy Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust)
The WWT promotes the conservation of wetlands focusing on rare wetland birds. Founded in 1946 by the artist and naturalist Sir Peter Scott, WWT is the largest international wetland conservation charity in the United Kingdom.

At 354 kilometers (220 miles), the Severn is the United Kingdom's longest river, and roughly forms a natural border between England from Wales. The Upper Severn Estuary is a designated Ramsar special protected area.

Ramsar is the short name given to the Convention on Wetlands, signed in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971. The convention provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands.

The special goose pasture is part of work being carried out by the WWT under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme.


Map showing Slimbridge and other sites managed by WWT. (Map courtesy Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust)
Administered by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) and co-financed by the European Union, the scheme pays farmers to improve the natural beauty and diversity of the countryside under 10 year agreements.

In running the Scheme, MAFF works closely with partner organizations, such as the Countryside Agency, English Nature, English Heritage, the National Parks Authorities, the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group, the Wildlife Trusts and the Royal Society for Protection of Birds.

At Slimbridge, the scheme helps the WWT maintain the salt marsh, wet grassland and reed beds frequented by a wide range of bird species resident year round, in addition to the winter feeding provided for the visitors.

The WWT arranges for the land to be farmed under annual licences. These are usually grazing licences but can include agreements to take arable and root crops. The licences are usually let to three neighboring farmers.

The scheme is worth about 250,000 (US$366,000) over 10 years. The money is also being used to develop public to the River Severn foreshore to allow better views of the birdlife without causing disturbance.

"The goose pasture is a special project which provides palatable winter grazing for the wildfowl, particularly the European white-fronted goose, Bewick's swan and wigeon," said Countryside Minister Elliot Morley, who visited Slimbridge today.

"It means they have suitable food close at hand, which encourages them to return to Slimbridge."


Countryside Minister Elliot Morley. (Map courtesy Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)
The WWT finds that its stewardship work benefits other species. Water voles enjoy a better habitat because of the extensively managed six meter field margins around the goose grazing fields.

Sluices funded under the scheme have raised water levels, creating standing water which encourages redshank and lapwing to breed. Farmland bird species in decline, such as skylark and meadow pipits, have also benefited from stewardship management.

Other species seen foraging in the areas of raised water include blacktailed godwit, avocet, little egret, and garganey.

About 13,000 agreements have been signed under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme and more than 3,000 farmers and landowners are being encouraged to apply for funds this year. The scheme's annual budget will rise from 35.5 million (US$52 million) this year to 126 million (US$184 million) by 2007.