Blog by Paul Bellamy Senior Conservation Scientist, Neil Riddle Principal Adviser – Natural Environment, Forestry Commission Phil Grice, Principal Specialist Ornithology, Natural England on their recently published paper.

RSPB and Forestry Commission have been investigating whether using government-funded environmental land management schemes to implement bespoke woodland management to improve their structure for birds, increases the abundance of the target species.

A project set up in the East Midlands in 2009 recorded woodland structure and birds from 64 woods prior to management being deployed, and again after management.

East Midlands Bird Project

The initial East Midlands Bird Project used the Woodland Improvement Grants available through Forestry Commission to target management towards improving woodland structure for a suite of woodland specialist birds.

The management was targeted towards improving woods for 13 target species: Garden Warbler, Hawfinch, Lesser Redpoll, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Marsh Tit, Pied Flycatcher, Redstart, Spotted Flycatcher, Tree Pipit, Woodcock, Wood Warbler, Willow Tit, and Willow Warbler.

The project employed a dedicated advisor to engage with woodland owners and managers to improve uptake of the grant and maximise benefits for birds. A sample of sites were selected for monitoring, and during 2010 to 2012 woodland structure and breeding birds were recorded as the agreements were drawn up to provide a baseline. The sites were spread across the region including the Peak District, Sherwood Forest, Vale of Belvoir, and Rockingham Forest, encompassing the range of landscapes, farming and soil types that are present in the region.

Location of the study woods within the East Midlands study region

Recording changes in woodland structure and birds

In each wood we recorded all birds present by using sample point counts from random locations and the number of territories based on mapping breeding activity during the breeding season. We also recorded woodland structure from plots at the same locations as the point counts.

This gave us information on the woodland structure as well as the bird species present and their abundance before management commenced. The selection of monitoring sites included woods that were going to be managed as well as some for which there were no plans for management.

In 2019 we revisited all sites and repeated data collection using the same methods and locations as in the initial baseline. In discussion with the woodland managers and using the original grant contracts, we identified the management carried out at each site. This allowed us to confidently say which sites could be used as comparison sites with no management (i.e. controls).

We analysed the results to show whether there was a difference between managed and unmanaged sites in the changes between survey periods. There were few unmanaged sites, so to give more confidence to the results we also compared the difference in bird numbers on our managed sites to changes in woodland Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) sites nearby and in the same landscapes.

Was woodland structure affected by management?

The type and amount of management was variable between sites, but the most frequent management involved tree canopy reduction through thinning and glade creation, widening and managing access rides, and creation of dead trees. We were able to detect the effect of the canopy reduction in our woodland structure measurements.

Before management there was no difference in number of trees between managed and unmanaged areas, but after management there were more trees on unmanaged areas compared with managed. The effect was also shown in the ground layer with less bramble cover on unmanaged areas than managed areas due to greater shading from trees.

An example of adjacent recently managed an unmanaged areas to improve structure on a woodland nature reserve © Paul Bellamy

Were target birds affected by management?

The woodland management had a positive effect on the target species as a group. Their numbers increased on point counts, or were stable from territory mapping, compared with decreases on unmanaged sites recorded by both survey methods. Similar declines were also detected on the nearby BBS sites.

The management was designed to benefit a suite of target species, but we also tested for effects on the specialist and generalist species in the woodland bird index used as part of the suite of UK and English bird indicators. The woodland specialists showed a similar but less strong effect from woodland management but there was no effect on woodland generalists. This suggests that targeting management for particular species has direct benefits for those species.

Willow warbler and Marsh tit were the most abundant of the target species, both of which showed a positive effect on their abundance from woodland management © RSPB images

How will the results be used?

This is the first time that a bird-focussed environmental land management (ELM) scheme for woodland has been assessed and shown to have a positive effect for the target species. The results will inform new ELM currently being developed for England, and the bird-focussed management options were incorporated into Countryside Stewardship that succeeded the Woodland Improvement Grants assessed in this study.

Countryside Stewardship is still open for applications for a further 2 years and grants are available to develop woodland management plans or target management or capital works to improve woodland for bird assemblages or individual threatened species, such as Willow tit. The authors of this paper have recently completed an assessment of the woodland management options of Countryside Stewardship for a range of biodiversity targets including birds.

For the full paper: Impact of woodland agri-environment management on woodland structure and target bird species

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