The University of Worcester and Worcester and Malvern RSPB Group have joined forces on an innovative project aimed at reversing the decline in farmland birds.

They are creating a food crop site on the University’s Lakeside Campus designed to support these birds, whose populations have plummeted in recent years, through the winter.  Students and RSPB volunteers will monitor the impact of the project over the next five years, providing a valuable opportunity, as well as generating data, for biodiversity and environmental studies.

Dr Mike Wheeler, Principal Lecturer in Biology in the School of Science and the Environment, who has led on the University’s side, said: “The project will provide a feeding area for a variety of bird species during the winter months but will also provide useful information on the numbers of each species and a chance for University of Worcester students to take part in bird surveys and find out how they can make a difference to conservation.”

There has been a rapid decline in the UK of farmland birds, such as corn bunting, skylark, linnet and yellowhammer.  Experts have suggested the lack of food in the winter months in particular could be a major contributory factor. Not only does a food shortage at this challenging time of year lead to starvation and death, but also those that survive it are in a poor condition ahead of the breeding season.

The scheme came about through links between Dr Wheeler and the local group and has been facilitated by staff in the University’s School of Sport and Exercise Science, who manage the Lakeside Campus, in collaboration with the School of Science and Environment.  Volunteers from both sides had been due to start planting of the seedbearing plants on the hectare site, at Holt Heath, a year ago, but this had to be put on hold as the Covid-19 lockdown took effect. The RSPB and the local wildlife trust have advised on the seed mix to be sown and when to do the work, which will start in late April or early May.

Nick Skilbeck, leader of the Worcester and Malvern RSPB (WMRSPB) Group, said: “Together we will be monitoring the different species of birds and other animals (invertebrates and mammals) using the crop. We hope to gain valuable insight into how farmland birds can best be supported using a variety of crop plant types, sowing times and changing other variables.”

Data collected will feed into national studies by linking up with the RSPB, the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) and other local researchers.  The WMRSPB is paying for the seed and agricultural work in the first two years, with help from a generous donor.

Mr Skilbeck added: “As the local representatives of the largest wildlife charity in the UK, we are eager to participate in projects to support farmland birds through the winter hunger gap and push back against their decline. We are grateful to the University of Worcester for the offer to use some of their land and welcome the opportunity to work with both staff and students. Everyone is so enthusiastic and can’t wait to get things going.”

Susie Scriven, Director of Sports Partnerships and Community Engagement for the University, said: “It is fantastic that colleagues in the School of Sport and Exercise Science at our Lakeside Campus have been working in collaboration with those in the School of Science and Environment and the RSPB to get such a positive project off the ground.  We are always keen to work with the community where possible, such as the outdoor activities and team building exercises that we deliver to the local community, in particular to primary and secondary schools, at our Lakeside Campus.  The University is looking at opportunities for schools to be involved in this project as it progresses.”

For information on courses at University of Worcester visit www.worcester.ac.uk.

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