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Marlborough Downs farmers are bringing tree sparrows back from catastrophic decline – with some enthusiastic helpers

Written by Tony Millett on .

The sparse tree sparrow population of north Wiltshire needs help – and the birds are getting it through a concerted campaign.  With help from primary school children making nesting boxes and university students planting the trees which will give the birds shelter on the Marlborough Downs, these shy birds are flourishing again.

It is a flagship campaign run by the farmers of the Marlborough Downs Nature Improvement Area (MDNIA) and it is having a positive impact on the endangered tree sparrows.  

The MDNIA was set up by a group of local farmers who in 2012 won funding under the government’s three year pilot scheme to encourage bio-diversity and wildlife-friendly farming methods – and get more people into the countryside.

It covers just over 25,000 acres south of Swindon down towards Marlborough on one side and Avebury on the other.

Their tree sparrow campaign involves planting suitable trees, providing nest boxes and food. Marlborough News Online has been seeing how two generations of young people have been helping the tree sparrows.

Tree sparrow: photo copyright Nick Upton Tree sparrow: photo copyright Nick Upton Tree sparrows are cousins of the house sparrow, but much shyer.  They mate for life and each year can produce two or three broods of up to seven eggs.  They can be best identified from the distinctive dark patches on their white cheeks.

Between 1970 and 2009 it is estimated that the tree sparrow population of Britain declined by 97 per cent.  

Matt Prior of the Wiltshire Ornithological Society told Marlborough News Online: “In 1999 there were about 30 pairs across north Wiltshire.  Now there are about 140 pairs – with at least 70 pairs on the Marlborough Downs.”

Part of the community values to which the MDNIA aspires is bringing together a variety of groups to help with the project – and enjoy the open air.

One misty morning up on the Downs eleven first year students from the Royal Agricultural University (RAU) in Cirencester were planting trees to give the tree sparrows the kind of shelter they like.  They were also putting up nesting boxes.

Their lecturer, Ian Grange, explained why he brought students on this kind of work experience: “Employers want students who have all the technical knowledge and theories, but they also want students who can do things on the ground.”

The ground was pretty hard and, of course, very stony.  But they dug in by hand plants that will grow into a ‘tree sparrow village’ of trees and, with the help of a Temple Farm tractor and equipment, planted a double corridor of trees designed to bring the tree sparrows into the ‘village’ and provide more shelter.

There with Matt Prior to lend a hand and make sure everything went in the right place were Temple Farm gamekeeper Phil Holborow and his assistant Kathryn Hutchinson.

(L to r) Phil Holborow, Jason White with Kathryn Hutchinson putting in the plants(L to r) Phil Holborow, Jason White with Kathryn Hutchinson putting in the plantsAmong the students was Jason White, once with the United States air force at Fairford, now living in Cirencester with his wife – who is from Easton Royal.  He wants to work on protecting at risk scheduled ancient monuments – of which there are plenty in Wiltshire.  And part of his course at the RAU involves a thirty day test project on heritage site protection.

Planting young trees on the Marlborough Downs may seem a long way from air force life, but it’s all good experience for Jason’s new life in England.

Matt Prior was pleased with the day’s achievements.  He works for Thames Water and they give employees two days extra off each year to work with charities.  This was one of Matt’s days.  

His next ‘charity day’ was to help with a group of thirty year four school children from St Mary’s Catholic Primary just north of the centre of Swindon. 

The day was organised by Suzie Swanton of North Farm, West Overton – one of the MDNIA farms.

They arrived at Overton’s North Farm in the coach that normally takes Swindon Football Club to matches.  That was one thrill for them – and there was another big thrill to come.  After walking through the fields, they assembled in one of the farm’s hay barns and Matt Prior told them all about tree sparrows and faced a barrage of searching questions.  

He showed them one of the special feeders the farmers hang up and keep supplied with grain.  This one was full of millet – a favourite winter meal for tree sparrows.

Then they got busy making fifteen nesting boxes.  Each pair had a carefully prepared ‘flat pack’, screws, screwdrivers, tacks and hammers [See photos below.]

With a little help – and the ‘front door’ holes drilled to the exactly right tree sparrow size by Suzie – they proved really adept and soon got the hang of fitting the pieces together and screwing them in place.

Suzie Swanton shows one of the barn owlsSuzie Swanton shows one of the barn owlsThen came a real surprise.  In the owl box high up on the wall of the barn Matt found a pair of wild barn owls.  And, wanting to ring them, he brought them out to show the children.

They were shown the difference in plumage between the male and female and the special wing feathers that allow them to fly so very quietly.  They even got to feel how soft their feathers are – but not how sharp their talons are.

Finally, it was time to put the nesting boxes they had made onto trees in a copse near the barn – a habitat that is expected to attract several pairs of tree sparrows. Suzie hopes some of the children will come back with their parents on Open Farm Sunday (June 8) to see their nest boxes.

They had learnt a great deal, achieved a great deal, had fresh air and exercise and got close to two wonderful owls – and certainly some young ‘townies’ were introduced to countryside life.  A good day for tree sparrows and a good day’s work for the MDNIA.

For more of Nick Upton's photos go to this website.   And there are more photos from the Marlborough Downs below: click to enlarge. And there is more about the MDNIA on their website.

BEFORE: The 'flat packs' ready and waitingBEFORE: The 'flat packs' ready and waiting

DURING: the hard workDURING: the hard workAFTER: fifteen boxes finished and ready for tree sparrowsAFTER: fifteen boxes finished and ready for tree sparrows