Nature lovers urged to help bring ‘Pennine finch’ back from the brink

Vanessa Amaral-Rogers

Monday 17 January 2022

Nature lovers across the South Pennines are being asked to support efforts to stop a rare and secretive songbird disappearing from the area’s uplands.

Twite, a species known locally as the Pennine finch, were once a common sight on moorland throughout the region. But a lack of food and suitable nesting sites, coupled with the impact of moorland fires, are believed to be behind a sharp drop in their number. 

Surveys carried out between 1990 and 2005 showed an 81% decline in the number of breeding pairs of twite across the South Pennines. Last summer, only 12 breeding pairs were identified across 18 monitoring sites. The figures reveal either a decline or a total loss of twite at all but one of these monitoring sites over the past five years. 

Action for Birds in England, a conservation partnership between Natural England and the RSPB, started the Twite Recovery Project with the aim of turning around the birds’ fortunes in the South Pennines – their last remaining significant breeding ground in the country. The project team is now calling on members of the public to support efforts to save the twite from local extinction by reporting sightings online. 

Katie Aspin, RSPB project officer for the Twite Recovery Project, said: “The lack of breeding pairs seen at our monitoring sites last year adds to the worrying picture. If nothing changes we believe twite could be locally extinct within three to five years, but we’re not prepared to give up on this population and believe there are ways to reverse the trend. 

“Landholders, project staff and a team of more than 30 volunteers have all made considerable efforts in recent years to improve the breeding environment for twite in the South Pennines. While the results so far are not what we’d hoped for, we know it takes time for habitat management work to have full effect. 

“Raising awareness is really important if we’re to prevent this breeding population disappearing completely, and we’re asking nature lovers throughout the region to play a part by reporting any sightings. This information will help us to build a wider picture of how these birds are faring and direct conservation efforts where they’ll have the biggest impact.” 

In recent years, licensed bird ringers have fitted tiny colour rings to the legs of many twite in the South Pennines. Each ring has a unique combination of colours, allowing the movements of individual birds to be accurately tracked. Details of sightings, and photos that show these colour rings, can be emailed to katrina.aspin@rspb.org.uk. More detailed information on the species and a guide to identifying twite can be found on the Twite Recovery Project webpage.  

The team is also keen to hear from individuals keen to support the project by volunteering their time, as well as landowners who want more information on how to manage land in ways that benefit twite. 

The newly launched South Pennines Park, which covers 460 square miles of uplands, valleys and urban fringes, is joining efforts to save the twite by raising awareness of the birds’ plight through a social media campaign. Established in September 2021, the organisation champions a new radical and inclusive approach to managing landscapes. 

Helen Noble, Chief Executive of South Pennines Park, said: “We have a long history of working collaboratively with our partners through the South Pennines Local Nature Partnership and now the Park.   

“As the South Pennines is the last remaining significant breeding ground for twite in England, we are very keen to work with our partners, landowners, farmers and communities to safeguard the South Pennines moorlands and bring them into favourable conditions that positively encourage twite to breed. This is a real call to action to look after nature so that it can support not only this precious species but help to mitigate the impacts of climate change that we are all facing.” 

Dr. Bart Donato, Senior Specialist - Terrestrial Ornithology for Natural England, said: “Understanding how to reverse the decline of twite has so far proved a challenge and the species faces the real threat of extinction as an English breeding bird. The support of the community in its last stronghold has been instrumental in both understanding how the population is faring and ensuring that there remains a core population to recover. With the continued support of the local community every sighting reported and meadow restored helps us move twite towards the path to recovery.” 

Twite are one of only two species of British songbird that feed exclusively on seeds all year round – the other being linnet. They are therefore dependent on hay meadows and upland pasture – a resource that has declined due to agricultural intensification. A main focus of the Twite Recovery Project since it was established in 2008 has been on increasing the availability of food during the breeding season. 

Almost 70 landholders have signed 10-year agri-environment agreements with options to benefit twite, and approximately 700 hectares of hay meadow and pasture is now managed to provide natural food sources for twite throughout the breeding season. Additionally, 250 hectares of land in the South Pennines has been reseeded with key twite food plants including dandelion, common sorrel and autumn hawkbit.  

The project team has also worked to promote the later cutting of upland hay meadows. This approach allows flowers to seed and provide food for twite during the early breeding season, and ensures seed is still available for second broods. Up to 15 supplementary feeding stations were maintained during the past year, with volunteers providing nyjer seed at locations close to twite breeding sites to help plug any gaps in birds’ natural food supply. 

A series of emergency measures are now being proposed to help stabilise England’s fragile twite population. These include fencing to protect twite nests, using trail cameras to identify key predator species and research into twite wintering grounds, plus continued engagement with landowners over twite-friendly upland farming methods and raising awareness with individuals and groups.

Last Updated: Monday 17 January 2022

Tagged with: Topic: Birds Topic: Conservation Topic: Get involved Topic: Wildlife