Saving the rare willow tits of Fairburn Ings

Guide
RSPB Warden at Fairburn Ings showing the still-smouldering ground at the reserve

On July 19th, we all sweated it out on Britain’s hottest day ever. But we weren’t the only ones struggling with the abnormally high temperatures. Across the country, birds were seen panting to stay cool, while dry leaves and twigs became perfect kindling. In places across the UK, from Pembrokeshire, to Kent, to Cornwall, worried onlookers reported huge plumes of smoke. Fires below devastated the wildlife, habitats, and even houses in these areas. In our Fairburn Ings reserve in West Yorkshire, one such wildfire broke out in willow tit woodland. Discover the little birds who are putting up a fight, and how you can help them.

RSPB Warden at Fairburn Ings showing the still-smouldering ground at the reserve
Warden holds out a scorched skull to the camera

The black-capped Brit

Over the years, we’ve been working to restore the unique landscape of Fairburn Ings. The site is a former coal tip which has been shaped by mining, with dips and peaks. There are areas of open water, reedbeds, wet grasslands, and wet woodlands. Thanks to your support and the hard work of our team, it’s teeming with diverse life. And just like our other reserves, it’s a really important place for biodiversity.

In the undergrowth, you can spot an array of wildlife, such as the elusive bittern, colourful kingfishers, majestic grey herons, and harvest mice. And who's that hopping about with a large sooty-black cap and a small untidy black bib? It’s the rare willow tit.

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We’ve been restoring Fairburn Ings to provide a home for this tiny unsung hero. But the willow tits have proved to be quite particular about their lodgings. As their name suggests, the willow tit loves to find a nice damp willow thicket near a peat bog or marsh to set up camp. When they discover the perfect spot, this tiny bird finds its inner woodpecker and drills a hole into rotten wood to create its nest hole.

But they’re not easy to spot, preferring to hide away from prying eyes. And don’t get them mixed-up with their cousin – these little guys have had their fair share of mistaken identity! In fact, willow tits look so much like a marsh tit, that we didn’t know the willow tit was a distinct species until 1897. Plus, the willow tits that hop around the UK are a unique sub-species, unlike those in Europe.

Unfortunately, like many other species, the willow tits have lost many pathways, hideouts, and homes over the years. Today, they are the UK’s most threatened resident bird. Learn more about our efforts to bring willow tits back from the brink, here.

What damage has the fire done?

For the wardens on this reserve, who have been working for years to restore the landscape, the wildfires which took hold in July were very distressing. The site is usually bursting with green life and vegetation, such as native broadleaf oak, and silver birch, which mean it’s classified as a low-risk site for fires. Their usually damp and juicy leaves mean they’re less flammable.

However, the searingly high temperatures this year have dried out the undergrowth and carpeted the area in brittle and dry material. We can’t be sure what spark started the blaze that day, but the result of the relentless flames, smoke, and ash is sixteen hectares of damage - roughly the size of twenty football pitches. And because this particular site has coal stored beneath the soil, the damage is two-fold. The soil continues to smoulder underground, like the embers of a campfire, and releases the carbon it’s been locking away into the atmosphere.

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It’s hard to watch. Our wardens estimate that these fires will have put the site’s restoration back by around thirty years. Many of the vulnerable animals living in this area will have sadly perished, and going forward, others will struggle to breed and forage. But it’s not too late to prevent more wildfires, protect our wonderful wildlife, and restore the damaged areas.

Are wildfires linked to climate change?

Yes. We know that climate change means more heatwaves and droughts, and we know that these conditions mean wildfires can spread. Normally, our lower temperatures and high rainfall mean we’re less likely to suffer from wildfires than our southern European neighbours. But, as the planet warms, these scenes may become more common. Scientists predict our summers will become hotter, and drier. That’s bad news for willow tits, and for us.

The scenes at Fairburn Ings are far from unique. Across the UK, fires have caused severe damage - four times more than the seasonal average. And it’s not just wildlife, but homes, shops and public spaces that caught fire, too. It’s a stark reminder that the devastating impacts of climate change are on our doorstep.

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Climate change poses a real risk to the biodiversity of our planet. Wildfires are a symbol of the destruction of climate change, but climate change also damages earth’s diverse life in other ways, such as rising sea levels and extreme weather. However, if we work alongside nature, we can protect wildlife and communities. Because not only is nature home to diverse and amazing wildlife, but sites like these have the power to fight the nature and climate crises by storing carbon, producing clean air, and providing pollination.

How can we reduce fires?

For the birds and wildlife we love, these wild places are homes they can’t afford to lose. But there’s still time to change this story. To prevent more fires like this one, it’s time to plan with nature in mind.

By asking our governments and politicians to reduce carbon emissions, we can lessen risks of wildfires in the UK, and abroad. That’s why we support the government targets to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. And to tackle the climate crisis, we must also halt our global loss of biodiversity

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By asking our governments to protect nature, we’re also backing our future. Later this year at the global biodiversity conference, COP15, we need to make sure they do just that. For willow tits and ourselves, protecting and restoring nature is vital.

How can I prevent wildfires?

Wildfire outbreaks are becoming more common, but there are some clear steps you can take to help prevent them. While warm weather conditions increase the risk of a fire, most of the time, the spark that starts a wildfire is linked to human activity. This means that by taking fire safety measures wherever possible, we can greatly reduce the risk of damaging the fragile homes of wildlife.

  • If it’s hot, dry or windy, forget about the campfire (no s’mores this time).
  • Make sure you take your litter home, as it can help fires to spread. You can help further by litter-picking any debris left by others.
  • Don’t throw cigarettes on the ground, and ensure they are fully put out.
  • Keep glass objects out of direct sunlight, as the glare can start fires.
  • Only have campfires or barbecues where it is designated as safe to do so, and make sure to safely dispose of hot embers. If the kids are involved in wild sleepout, make sure to supervise them with fire safety.
  • If you’d like to combat biodiversity loss, you can help to protect and restore these important spaces through volunteering opportunities.

The road to recovery

For now, the soil at Fairburn Ings is still smouldering. But there’s hope. Soon, we’ll begin work to restore these special woodlands and create new homes for willow tits and other wildlife. Across the country, your support is helping us to fight biodiversity loss.

Today, our wildlife, like the willow tit, really need us. And we need them, too. From the medicines we take, to the food we eat, to the air we breathe, earth’s diverse range of plants and animals keep us alive. So, let's work with nature to make sure wildfires, droughts, and heatwaves, don’t become the norm.

Later this year at the global biodiversity conference, COP15, we’ll have a chance to speak up for the wildlife we depend on. The clock is ticking, but it’s not too late to help us call time on biodiversity loss. Find out more here.