12 December 1997

Farm provides a

vital sanctuary

for a rare bird

A Lancashire familys

commitment to conservation

has not only won them a

prestigious award. Their

unstinting efforts on a

170ha (420-acre) arable

and beef unit have attracted

one of Britains rarest birds.

Jeremy Hunt paid

them a visit

THE enigmatic bittern, lover of reed beds and secret watery haunts, could be extinct within two years, according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. But this shy and elusive bird still visits a Lancashire coastal farm where wildlife conservation is a priority.

Peter and Julie Taylor and their son Richard are taking a long-term view of conservation at their Cote Walls Farm, Preesall on the Fylde coast.

Their land runs down to the estuary of the River Wyre where salt winds from the Irish Sea create an estuarine environment that presents a tough challenge to any conservation programme.

But with the help of local Farming and Wildlife Advisary Group adviser Jeff Simpkin and a family-shared passion for improving the environment on the farm, they are achieving great things.

Over the last three years a total of 2.4ha (6 acres) of broad-leaved woodland has been planted – over 5000 trees – along with 2000m (6500ft) of new hedgerows. So severe are the saline winds that every one of the many thousands of hedge plants has had to be fitted with an individual guard and staked. And the same goes for every young tree.

Although the Taylor familys work has won them the countys 1997 Farm Landscape Award, their most ambitious project may yet yield an even bigger prize.

To create a perfect reed-bed habitat that would attract rare bitterns and encourage them to breed is not an impossible dream for this determined team which includes farm staff Robert Cummings and his wife Jill.

Farms hidden jewel

A tour of the farm involves travelling along a straight track which is bordered by a thriving newly planted mixed hedge. The track marks the site of an old railway line which used to lead from a salt mine once located on the farm.

Salt from the mine, which was worked until the early 1900s, was railed a few miles out to the coast where it was loaded and shipped from this small corner of Lancashire to ports throughout the world.

Away from the old mine workings the newly sown fields of autumn barley form part of the farms successful arable enterprise. But hidden away in one corner of the farm lies its jewel. Its a large reed bed which may hold the key to re-establishing a habitat for Britains rarest bird.

The Taylor family faces a challenge. As a result of a dramatic drop in the water table the reed bed is drying out.

"The water table is falling and the sedge grasses are taking over. The reeds that were once as tall as a man are now barely waist high," says Mr Taylor.

But he has intervened. An area around 33sq m (40sq yds) has been dug out to about 150mm (6in) deep. Autumn rains filled the exposed area with water and the rhizomes of the reeds appear to be still intact. Its hoped that encouraging the water table to rise will enable the reeds to regenerate and if this small-scale experiment is successful a more ambitious renovation of the reed bed will be undertaken.

Not only will birds such as the sedge warbler, reed-warbler and whitethroat be guaranteed a habitat, but this quiet and undisturbed area could prove a life-line for the threatened bittern.

Last year only 11 male bitterns in the UK were recorded bellowing out their distinctive "boom" call – thats half the number of a year ago. But the Taylor family have not only seen a bittern on their land, they actually saved its life.

"We spotted a bittern on one of the dykes one very cold morning. The water was frozen and the bird was obviously near to starvation," says Mr Taylor.

He called in the help of local British Trust for Ornithology man Bob Danson who works closely on bird ringing projects on the land at Cote Walls Farm. The bird was carefully taken home but failed to respond to a feed of "white" fish.

"In desperation I dug some worms from the muck heap, stuck one on the end of a line, broke the ice on the farm pond and tried a spot of fishing."

Emergency tactics

Mr Taylors emergency tactics landed three perch. The fish were "despatched" and presented to the frail bittern. The bright red colour of the perch fins did the trick and the fish were devoured. The bittern survived and after recuperating in a sanctuary it was released at the RSPBs Leighton Moss Reserve near Carnforth where it is still thriving.

"That is the second bittern we have had on the farm. Lets hope that we can attract even more by halting the decline of the reed bed."

Cote Walls Farm abounds with wildlife. This year four barn owls have been reared by a resident breeding pair.

Over 800 swallows have been officially ringed on the farm by the BTO and a whitethroat that was originally ringed four years ago has been caught every year since.

Top: 5000 trees and 2000m of new hedgerows have been planted over the last three years. Left: FWAG adviser Jeff Simpkin (left) has helped Peter and Julie Taylor to take a long-term view on conservation. Below:Regeneration of the reed bed could hold the key to the

re-establishment of the bitterns habitat.