RSPB Coombes Valley and RSPB Churnet Valley are both beautiful woodland reserves in North Staffordshire and are part of the Staffordshire Woods and Moors Futurescape.  The reserves are home to a wealth of wildlife such as the argent & sable moth, pied flycatcher, common redstart, spotted flycatcher and wood warbler. 

In the UK, woodland birds are in trouble. The latest Breeding Bird Survey from the British Trust for Ornithology shows that in the last 23 years spotted flycatcher and wood warbler have declined by 38% and 57% respectively. Between 1994 and 2015 pied flycatcher has declined by 48% and is now a red listed species and redstart is an amber list species.

Pied Flycatcher in Hawthorn at RSPB Coombes Valley photo c/o Mel Brown

Both Coombes and Churnet Valleys are Sites of Special Scientific Interest because of their woodland habitat and associated bird species.  However in 2012, both valleys were identified as sites that were struggling to support these special birds.  This was because of a very unusual problem- holly! Although holly is a native species in the UK, and an important component part of many woodlands, holly at Coombes and Churnet had gone crazy. Across both reserves holly bushes had grown into dense, tall, impenetrable barriers that completely dominated the woodland understorey and let no light through to the woodland floor.

The holly was also having a dramatic impact on our bird species; in particular pied flycatcher, redstart and wood warbler, which all require an open understorey and good horizontal visibility through the woodland. To tackle this unusual problem the RSPB team needed help and in 2014, the Forestry Commission awarded the reserves a Woodland Improvement Grant to clear 46.8 ha of holly.

Contractors and the RSPB team, mostly made up of volunteers and interns, have worked tirelessly over three wet winters. On incredibly steep and muddy slopes they have felled large areas of dense and very prickly holly.  But there’s good news- all this hard scratchy work has paid off.  Each holly bush that has been cleared has opened up the woodland and given mature oak trees space and light for the first time in many years.



Staff and Volunteers hard at work photos c/o Mel Brown

Our woodland bird species have noticed the difference too. Pied flycatcher numbers have already seen promising improvements following the holly clearance. Volunteer led Nestbox surveys have found pied flycatcher in 38 Nestboxes this year compared with 31 in 2016. Redstart numbers have more than doubled- from 14 territories in 2016 to 31 in 2017.  What has been particularly encouraging is that these increases are happening on parts of the reserve where we have targeted the holly clearance.  In particular Brawnback at Coombes Valley and Chase Wood in the Churnet.  Both of these areas have permissive paths running through them, so we hope that visitors will get better views of these iconic birds than ever before.

Before and After, Booths Wood, RSPB Churnet Valley, photo c/o Paul Bennett

None of these achievements would have been possible without the generous funding provided by the Forestry Commission, support from Natural England, the mammoth efforts of the hardcore Tuesday volunteer work party, intern workforce and groups such as the University of Central Lancashire and AMEY plc/Staffordshire County Council. We won’t see the full benefits of this project for some time but we have one more winter of holly clearance to go, so who knows what we might find next spring!?