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MONITORING OF CHOUGH OPTION

By Marie Freeman,2014-11-26 16:57
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MONITORING OF CHOUGH OPTION

    MONITORING OF THE CHOUGH OPTION IN THE ANTRIM COAST, GLENS AND RATHLIN

    ENVIRONMENTALLY SENSITIVE AREA

    1998 - 2002

    Report to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development

    by

    Agri-environment Monitoring Unit

    Queen’s University Belfast

    March 2004

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Agri-environment Monitoring Unit

    The agri-environment scheme monitoring programme in Northern Ireland is funded by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) through its Science Service and carried out by Queen’s University, Belfast (QUB).

Co-ordinator Dr. J. H. McAdam (DARD)

Team members Dr. A. Cameron (QUB)

     Ms M. Flexen (QUB)

     Mr. R. J. Johnston (QUB)

Address Agri-environment Monitoring Unit

    Department of Applied Plant Science

     Queen’s University of Belfast

     Newforge Lane

     Belfast

    BT9 5PX

     Northern Ireland

Tel: 028 90255525

    Fax: 028 90668372

    Email: jim.mcadam@dardni.gov.uk

     m.flexen@qub.ac.uk

     r.j.johnston@qub.ac.uk

Acknowledgements

    Thanks are extended to Giles Knight (RSPB) for contributing to this report and providing information on RSPB monitoring. Thanks also to Jenny Campbell (National Trust) for information and for assisting with survey work. We are also grateful to the farmers and landowners for their co-operation in allowing access to their land.

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    CONTENTS

    SUMMARY ……………………………………………………...……………………….. 1

    1. INTRODUCTION ……………………………………………………………..…. 3

    1.1. Background……………………………………………………………….. 3

    1.2. The DARD Chough Option……………………………………………… 4

    1.3. Research and monitoring…………………………………………….…. 5

    2. MONITORING THE EFFECTS OF THE CHOUGH OPTION……..………… 6

    2.1. Methods…………………………………………………………………… 6

    2.2. Results………………………………………………..…………………… 9

    3. MONITORING OF THE CHOUGH POPULATION…………………………. 18

    3.1. Methods………………………………………………………………..…… 18

    3.2. Results…………………………………………………………………….... 19

    4. DISCUSSION ………………………………………………….……………….. 21

    5. REFERENCES …………………………………………………………..…..… 24

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    SUMMARY

    The decline of the chough population in Northern Ireland has been attributed to the loss of their habitat due to changing farming practices. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) introduced the Chough Option into specific areas within the Antrim Coast, Glens and Rathlin Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) in 1997 with the aim of maintaining and restoring suitable chough feeding habitat.

    Monitoring by QUB to determine the effects of the option commenced in 1998 with a baseline survey of vegetation and surface-active invertebrates on a range of fields used by the chough. A resurvey was carried out in 2002 and data compared between years. Results indicate that suitable chough habitat is being maintained with some areas of short sward and the presence of known invertebrate prey items. Current literature recommends very short swards close to chough nesting sites although maintaining these may be at the expense of other species.

    Monitoring of the remnant chough population by the RSPB since 1998 has shown that they utilise land under Chough Option management almost exclusively. Many other factors have been implicated in the decline of chough populations. In the absence of a viable population these factors may prove difficult to determine. However, it would appear that agri-environment scheme farmland management on the north Antrim coast is providing the best hope for survival of the chough in Northern Ireland and is also benefiting other farmland birds.

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1. INTRODUCTION

1.1. Background

The chough, Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax, is a member of the crow family and is

    confined mainly to western coastal areas in Britain and Ireland. They nest in cliff crevices and feed mainly on unimproved grassland and coastal heathland on cliff tops and slopes. Their diet consists primarily of invertebrates, especially those found in soil or dung.

    The decline of the chough in the UK and Ireland has been well documented (Cabot, 1965; Bullock et al., 1983; Whilde, 1988) and several theories proposed to explain this trend. These include increased competition, increased predation, climatic factors, habitat change and the genetic structure of populations due to the sedentary nature of the species (Monaghan, 1988). More recent work (e.g. McCracken and Bignal, 1998) attributes this decline to a lack of suitable feeding areas as a result of the loss and deterioration of unimproved grasslands and coastal heath.

    In Northern Ireland the chough population has continued to fall, with only 9 or 10 breeding pairs observed in 1982. The decline is thought to be related to a lack of suitable feeding habitat mainly due to agricultural improvement and changes in livestock farming practise. By 1992 there were only two breeding pairs remaining, confined to the mainland north Antrim coast. The population has remained more or less stable since then, although breeding success has been poor. However since 1998 there has only been one breeding pair observed.

    The chough is a protected species in Europe and listed in the Irish Red Data Book as internationally important (Whilde, 1993). Therefore it requires conservation action in Northern Ireland and as such is a priority species in the Biodiversity Action Plan. A specific action plan has been produced (EHS, 2000) with the lead agencies involved being Environment and Heritage Service (EHS) and Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD). The RSPB chair the BAP Steering

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    Group for chough and are closely involved in management and monitoring. A farmer’s representative and the National Trust also sit on this group. The objective of the Species Action Plan is to maintain chough as a breeding species in Northern Ireland. Restoration of the breeding population to at least 1982 levels, i.e. 10 pairs, by 2010 is the main target.

1.2. The DARD Chough Option

    Research carried out by the RSPB in 1996 identified the remaining important chough feeding areas in north Antrim (Colhoun & Donaghy, 1996). Following this DARD introduced the Chough Option into the Antrim Coast, Glens and Rathlin Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) scheme in 1997. The initial aim was to maintain and restore suitable chough feeding habitat on the north Antrim coast. Landowners at Fair Head and the Causeway Coast were targeted and encouraged to enter into Chough Option agreements. In return for following a specific management plan (initially for 5 years) the landowner receives an additional payment on top of the ESA payment. By 1998, seven farmers and landowners, including the National Trust, had signed Chough Option agreements on 265 ha of farmland. This includes 154ha at Fair head and 111ha at the Causeway. Over the two land blocks, 219ha is unimproved grassland or rough grazing, 26ha is improved grassland and 20ha is arable.

    Management prescriptions for the Chough Option were developed jointly by DARD and RSPB. The priority is to provide the best habitat for feeding chough by maintaining grasslands with a short sward (i.e. 2-3cm) for at least part of the year. Management plans also require all year round grazing on certain fields. Supplementary feeding must be sited in agreement with DARD. Other prescriptions include gorse or bracken control, topping of grass tussocks, and fertiliser and pesticide restrictions. Cereal fields must have stubble retained over winter to provide grain as an additional food source for chough as well as other farmland birds.

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1.3. Research and monitoring

    Research on chough feeding behaviour at the Causeway and Fair Head in 1996 indicated that the birds utilised a range of habitats during the breeding season, mostly within a 1km radius of the nest-site (Colhoun & Donaghy, 1996). However they showed a distinct preference for a small number of areas, most of which were unimproved or semi-improved grassland. Where improved grassland was used foraging was concentrated on particular features such as rocky outcrops or short vegetation beside paths. Further studies found that field characteristics that influenced selection by chough included little or no inputs of fertilisers, well-drained soils and a short sward (Hart, 1996).

    Monitoring the effects of the Chough Option commenced in 1998 with a baseline survey of vegetation and surface-active invertebrates on a range of fields by Queen’s University of Belfast (QUB). A resurvey was carried out in 2002. The aim of this study was to evaluate the effectiveness of management prescriptions in delivering habitat suitable for choughs on designated areas.

    Regular monitoring of the remnant chough population has been carried out by the RSPB since 1998, along with records from others such as the National Trust. In 1999 an Agri-environment Project Officer was appointed jointly by DARD and RSPB and had responsibility for promoting appropriate habitat management and monitoring chough activity. This responsibility has since been taken up by RSPB. Breeding success is assessed each year and possible causes of failure investigated, such as predation of chicks by peregrine falcons.

    Land at the Causeway is under ASSI and SAC designation and as such will have a condition and compliance monitoring programme established by EHS to prevent further damage to habitats. The National Trust also carry out biological surveys of their land including fields under Chough Option and ESA agreement.

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2. MONITORING THE EFFECTS OF THE CHOUGH OPTION

2.1. Methods

Site selection

    Monitoring sites on the Causeway Coast and at Fair Head were chosen from different habitat categories under the Chough Option (Figures 1a & 1b). The sites were within fields or compartments identified by the RSPB as having high or low usage (i.e. percentage frequency of visits) by feeding choughs in May and June of 1996 (Coulhoun & Donaghy, 1996).

Figure 1a. Map of Causeway Coast showing land under Chough Option

    agreement and positions of sites monitored in 1998 and 2002.

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    1A/B

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