Guest blog from Rhys Evans, RSPB Cymru Policy Officer

Although they have never been common, twite used to be relatively widespread in the uplands of North Wales.  In recent years however, the breeding population and autumn flocks have both declined rapidly.  Indeed, between 1999 and 2008 Wales lost half of its breeding pairs, and in the last 20 years the number of winter visitors has dropped by 80%.

Twite are unique in that they only eat seeds, and rear their young on seed alone (many birds feed insects to their chicks).  One of the main reasons for this decline is the loss of the twite's food supply - small seeds of meadow plants such as dandelion, hawkbit and sorrel.  

Twite image by Steve Knell

Covering the Nant Ffrancon and Llyn Ogwen areas of Snowdonia (home to the last confirmed population of breeding twite in Wales) RSPB has been working in partnership with the National Trust, as well as other conservation partners and farmers to alter farm practices and encourage the flowering and seeding of meadow plants to provide food for twite. 

Nant Ffrancon valley. Image: Rhian Pierce

Traditional hay meadows are a valuable source of seed for twite. However, due to the nature of the land in Snowdonia a number of farmers felt that their land was not suitable for mowing and baling hay. So, we decided that we would establish ‘grazing breaks’, which means removing grazing animals from a field for 8-10 weeks to allow the grasses and flowers to flower and go to seed.  The fields are then grazed as normal rather than mown for hay.  Some other areas were getting too wet for hay meadows and needed draining, while some fields were lacking the twite’s favoured food plants. So, we’ve sown seeds to make sure that the fields are just to the twite's liking. A number of farmers agreed to feed the twite with nyjer seed and meadow hay, boosting their natural menu.

We’re monitoring the grazing breaks to see which plants grow, and how much the twite use them as a seed source.  2018 started off well from mid-April with 4 twite regularly seen on each of the feeding stations at Pentre, Blaen y Nant and Braich Ty Du.  However, after a few visits seeing no twite at any of the feeding stations (perhaps due to ample natural food being available up in the mountains), Rhian, our farm conservation advisor, had a super exciting moment when 20, yes TWENTY, twite flew up out of one of the grazing break fields at Braich Ty Du farm where they were all feeding! There were lots of twite food-plants to be seen including catsear, sheeps sorrel and common sorrel.

Catsear in flower. Image by Rhian Pierce

The twite recovery project demonstrates how important local farmers’ land is to the survival of the breeding Welsh twite population. It also shows how targeted management for species over a landscape scale can yield positive results.  Of course, none of this would be possible without the farmers - they are key to this success.  Indeed, due to the success of the project, meadow management will be rolled out to other farms within the area under the Carneddau Landscape Partnership HLF Project. Long live the twite!