England Twite Recovery Project Officer Katie Aspin talks about how the RSPB is working with farmers in the South Pennines to reverse the fortunes of twite.

Twite are hardy seed eating finches that live in remote upland and coastal areas, mainly in Scotland but with small numbers in North Wales, Northern Ireland and the Pennines.

In England, twite were once a common sight in the Pennines, so much so that they gained the nickname of Pennine Finch. However, over the last few decades they have undergone dramatic declines. One of the main reasons is the reduction in their food supply as many wildflower-rich upland hay meadows have disappeared. This has contributed to a 72% decline in the English twite population since 1999. It’s now estimated that there are only 160 breeding pairs remaining in England, the majority of which are in the South Pennines.

In response to this dire situation, the RSPB and Natural England set up The England Twite Recovery Project ten years ago in 2008.

In an attempt to halt this vertiginous decline, we have been working with nearly 70 South Pennines farmers to provide more food for twite during the breeding season.

Funded by Government environmental stewardship schemes, participating farmers have increased the number of wildflowers over their breeding season by reducing stocking levels, cutting meadows on later dates and restoring traditional hay meadows.

One of the farms we’ve been working with is Beeston Hall Farm, near Ripponden. This is tenanted out by Yorkshire Water to Rachel and Stephen Hallos, who have been working with the Twite Recovery Project since its early days back in 2010. They initially got into an environmental stewardship scheme for financial reasons but they soon became enthused about how they could manage their farm to benefit not just their business but also the environment.

They completely changed their business model to accommodate the conservation work on the farm. One of the key goals of their environmental stewardship agreement is to enhance the land to benefit twite, as their farm is well positioned within close range of a number of twite breeding sites. Fourteen of their fields have had the seed of twite food plants (including dandelion, common sorrel, cat’s ear and autumn hawkbit) added to them. This work was done by hand to get the best possible results. A few years on and what were once green fields, mainly with one species of grass, are now flower-rich meadows buzzing with bees and butterflies and full of seed for twite to feed on.

Rachel Hallos says: “We think our meadows look great, especially in summer, and have noticed more birds, bees and butterflies. There has also been the added benefit that our cows and sheep love the hay we produce from the meadows and we get numerous comments about it when we are at shows with our cattle, as it offers such variety. It’s like a taste of sunshine in winter for our livestock.”

Despite this huge effort by farmers, volunteers and project staff, the results from the 2016 population survey showed that twite have continued to decline in the South Pennines. Although hugely disappointing, it’s still early days, as it takes time for restored hay meadows to become fully established. In the meantime, we are continuing to offer support and management advice to the farmers whose fields are being managed as twite foraging habitats. We’ve also been working with some farmers to fill the gaps in the year when food is scarce for twite. This includes planting over 3000 autumn hawkbit plug plants at five farms including the Hallos’, back in September with the help of an excellent group of volunteers.

These plants will hopefully flower and set seed in late July right through into early October this year, providing twite with a food source late in their breeding season. We’re also currently planning a hay strewing trial, which will see over 15 farmers strewing seed-rich hay in some of their fields early in the twite breeding season.

We’re not giving up hope and will carry on doing all we can to keep breeding twite in the South Pennines. This will only be possible with the continuing help of farmers like Rachel, who says: “The farm is a business and as long as it is financially viable for us to do so, we aim to remain a part of the twite project.

“It has been a lifeline to the farm and I would like to think that our farm has been a lifeline to the twite.”

Rachel and Stephen are just one of the landholders who have put so much effort into the project, we are very grateful to them.

Project Funding

The project is run and funded as a joint venture by the RSPB and Natural England with contributions from Marshalls and Yorkshire Water.

Katie Aspin, Twite Project Officer, RSPB. Email – katrina.aspin@rspb.org.uk

Images by Tom Marshall.