Status and conservation of grass snakes and slow-worms in Jersey

Grass snake in Jersey. Photo by Rob WardBy Rob Ward

Rob Ward (24)

Slow-worm. Photo by Rob Ward

The grass snake is rare in Jersey, and has a restricted distribution particularly within the west and south-west of the island. This project aims to determine the status of Jersey’s populations, identify causes of decline, and provide information for conservation action and species recovery.


  • Determine the distribution and population size of grass snakes and slow-worms across the island
  • Investigate movements, range size and habitat use of both species, and undertake modelling
  • Examine predator / prey relationships of grass snake populations
  • Conduct genetic analysis of the grass snake populations
  • Provide recommendations for species conservation and recovery
  • Engage and educate the public in grass snake conservation in Jersey.


A juvenile grass snake captured during surveys. Photo by Rob Ward

A juvenile grass snake captured during surveys. Photo by Rob Ward

The grass snake (Natrix natrix) is a harmless non-venomous snake, and is the only snake species native to Jersey. Although relatively common in mainland Britain and Europe, in Jersey it is rare, and seemingly declining. Little research has previously been conducted on Jersey’s grass snake population, and so our knowledge of its ecology, conservation status, and relationships with other Island species is relatively lacking. Historic information regarding the distribution of this species is found in Frances Le Sueur’s A Natural History of Jersey (1976), which suggested that grass snakes were most numerous in the north-west and south-west of the Island, but also stated that they occurred throughout the Island in low numbers. More recent studies confirm grass snakes to have a stronghold in the west and south-west of the Island, with a further population in the south-east. However, no grass snakes have been seen in the north-west (Les Landes) since a juvenile at Grosnez pond in 1992. With such a lack of information, it is clear that much work still remains before a true picture of the grass snake’s ecology and population size in Jersey can be determined.

What is being done?

In order to deal with this paucity of information, a research project was developed between the States of Jersey Department of the Environment, the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE) at the University of Kent, and Amphibian Research and Conservation (ARC), resulting in a PhD position. Research being carried out by Rob Ward, a student at the University of Kent, consists of four key activities:

1)      Determining distribution and population size

Green lizard basking on one of the survey materials. Photo by Rob Ward

Green lizard basking on one of the survey materials. Photo by Rob Ward

Since March of this year, surveys have been taking place at multiple sites, particularly in the west and south-west of the island, in order to collect data on the Island’s slow-worm and grass snake populations. These surveys involve checking artificial materials that have been laid out to attract reptiles through the warmth and shelter they provide.

During the surveys, a number of environmental variables are recorded, as well as morphological data on each of the grass snakes and slow-worms found. These sightings are then plotted on a map, which can be used to study habitat use of the species.

In addition to the surveys conducted by Rob and his volunteers, a publicity campaign, “Think Grass Snake” was launched on the 22nd June 2014 to encourage the public to send in their sightings of grass snakes and slow-worms. A dedicated ‘Spotline‘ is in place to receive phone calls on 441628, as well as a website at www.ThinkGrassSnake.Je, and presence on social media. The campaign also aims to educate the public about the two species, and raise awareness of their decline.

Think grass snake

2)      Investigating movements, range size and habitat use

A radio tag fitted to the tail of an adult grass snake. Photo by Rob Ward

A radio tag fitted to the tail of an adult grass snake. Photo by Rob Ward

Understanding the movements and habitat preferences of a species is an important factor for their conservation to ensure the right areas are protected and managed correctly. Grass snakes are known to move large distances, and so it is particularly important to know which habitat types they use during different times of the year and at different life stages, as well as the location of key habitat features such as feeding ponds, nesting sites, and hibernation sites. During this project, each captured snake and slow-worm has a number of pictures taken of its individual patterns. For grass snakes, this is the belly pattern, and so it is possible to tell when an individual is recaptured, and thus how far it has moved between captures.

Another way of studying the movement of grass snakes is to use radiotracking. Adult snakes are fitted with a small radio tag on their tail, and located two to three times per day until the tag falls off (normally when they shed their skin). This gives much more detailed information on the size of the areas they need to live in, the habitats they prefer, and their behaviour.

An adult female grass snake with a radio tag fitted to its tail. Photo by Rob Ward

3)      Examining predator and prey relationships

A good example of a garden pond known to be used by toads and newts for breeding, providing an excellent source of food for grass snakes. Photo by Rob Ward

Garden pond used by toads and newts, an excellent source of food for grass snakes. Photo by Rob Ward

Grass snakes primarily feed on amphibians and fish; however, in Jersey many of the amphibian species have undergone declines, especially the Agile frog. These declines in prey could be one of the reasons that the grass snake has declined, and so it is important to understand what the remaining grass snakes in Jersey are eating.

The project utilises two main methods of studying the diet of Jersey’s grass snakes. The first of which is to encourage captured snakes to regurgitate any recent meals. When this is successful, it gives an immediate insight in to the diet of the captured snake, and the prey item(s) can then be manipulated back in to the digestive tract of the snake so that the prey item is not lost.
The second method involves collection of faecal samples from captured snakes, from which DNA will be extracted to identify the species consumed.


Tadpoles and small agile frogs are regularly eaten by grass snakes. An adult toad too would make suitable prey for an adult grass snake. Photos by Rob Ward

4) Genetic analysis of the grass snake population

The unique belly pattern of a juvenile grass snake captured during surveys, with a ruler showing its size. Photo by Rob Ward

The unique belly pattern of a juvenile grass snake captured during surveys, with a ruler showing its size. Photo by Rob Ward

When populations become isolated for long periods of time, and especially when a population is of a small size, the genetic quality of the population can begin to deteriorate. In Jersey, grass snakes are at risk for both these reasons, and could be suffering from the founder effect, poor gene flow, and resulting inbreeding due to fragmentation. To determine if these problems are occurring, DNA samples are collected from captured grass snakes, shed skins, and dead individuals. These can then be used to investigate how individuals are related to one another, and give an insight in to any requirements for human intervention. Furthermore, the DNA can be compared to samples from grass snake populations elsewhere in Europe to see which are most closely related to those here in Jersey. This information is useful should there be a need for reintroduction, genetic restoration, or captive breeding of snakes to ensure the population’s survival.

Habitat management

A possible cause of snake decline is the loss of particular habitat features including feeding ponds, compost and manure heaps for egg-laying, and hibernation sites. Fragmentation may also be a factor as snakes are at risk whilst crossing boundaries such as roads, as well as having to travel further and using more energy when man-made obstacles may be in their way. We can, therefore, improve habitats for grass snakes by providing some of these features. Compost heaps in particular are of low cost, are easy to construct and maintain, and can be built in private gardens and allotments as well as public areas and reserves. In areas with large quantities of grass clippings such as on golf courses, the materials can be piled up to provide suitable nesting habitats for grass snakes as well as a home for a variety of other wildlife. As grass snakes nest around June, and eggs do not normally hatch until the September or occasionally even October, not disturbing potential nesting sites during these periods is important.

Capture 2

A pile of grass clippings (left) or a domestic compost heap could provide an important nest site for grass snakes. Photos by Rob Ward

Keep up to date with the Think Grass Snake campaign and Rob’s research by keeping an eye on the website blog and on social media:

Spotline (if you see a grass snake) – 01534 441628

Raptor Day – Sunday 10th August

RaptorDayBy Cris Sellarés

Birds On The Edge is pleased to invite you to RAPTOR DAY, a celebration of Jersey’s raptor diversity and these birds’ beauty and ecological role in our natural communities.

On Sunday 10th August we are carrying out a variety of events, in partnership with Hen Harrier Day, celebrated across the UK to highlight the plight of this highly threatened species.

10.30 – 12.00 Summer 2014 RaptorWatch: The annual co-ordinated census will be carried out by a team of volunteers stationed at various observation points across the Island. You are welcome to join us for RaptorWatch at the Wetland Centre by St Ouen’s pond or at Noirmont.

Marsh harrier 3. Photo by Mick Dryden

12.00 – 12.15 RaptorWatch results and recap. Location: Wetland Centre main area.

12.15 – 12.40 Celebration of Hen Harrier Day. A short talk highlighting the issues that endanger the hen harrier and the activities taking place across the UK to raise awareness. Location: Wetland Centre classroom.

12.40 – 13.00 Marsh harrier research in Jersey. A short talk about the colour-ringing project and the ecology of our present population. Location: Wetland Centre classroom.

13.00 Raffle of a very special item of original artwork. Details to follow soon.

More information on Hen Harrier Day here

Would you like to help with the 2014 Jersey Small Mammal Survey?

Jersey bank vole. Photo by Denise McGowanThe Natural Environment Team at the Department of the Environment is looking for volunteer help with the 2014 Jersey Small Mammal Survey.

Work involved

Trap set. Photo by Denise McGowan

The work involves humanely trapping and handling Jersey’s small mammals; the Jersey bank vole, the wood mouse, the lesser white-toothed shrew and Millet’s shrew. Animals are identified, weighed, sexed and given a fur clip. This helps to identify them if they are caught again. There are 22 sites island-wide. Most sites are visited three times a day. The traps are checked and re-baited in the morning with mincemeat and oats and checked again twice more during the day. Assistance with setting and collecting traps (49 traps per site) is also required. Two sites are visited each day (sometimes three sites) by each person. There is a small amount of travel in between sites.


Lesser white-toothed shrew. Photo by Tim Ransom

Lesser white-toothed shrew. Photo by Tim Ransom

Autumn trapping will begin on the 8th September and will continue for 10 weeks. The work should end in the middle of November.  Volunteer help is required for weekdays and will most likely be required for the morning routine. This begins around 7.30am until approximately 10am (depending on how many animals are caught). The traps are then checked at midday and in the evening. Times can vary depending on dawn and dusk times.  Volunteer help would be greatly appreciated for the morning routines as mornings are the busiest times and anything else could be worked into a rota.

Millet's shrew in Jersey (2). Photo by Gregory Guida

Millet’s shrew in Jersey. Photo by Gregory Guida

Required from volunteers

Commitment – free time in the morning preferably, afternoon and evening if possible.

Own transport.

Good water proof clothing and suitable footwear (wellies or boots). Gloves and all other equipment will be provided.

Physically fit and prepared to work in all types of weather.

On offer

Training in handing small mammals will be provided prior to September trapping.

Petrol allowance will be provided for use of own vehicle.

Wood mouse

Wood mouse

Benefits from being involved

Experience in outdoor conservation work.

Experience with using Longworth traps and handling small mammals in Jersey

Helping to conserve Jersey’s small mammal population.

If you are interested or have any questions please contact the Natural Environment team by emailing Denise McGowan at If you would like to chat about the work you can call Denise on 07797 810987

Chough report: June 2014. Part 2

Chicks independently feeding. Any attempt to pass them food without the glove scared them away. Photo by Liz CorryBy Liz Corry


It wasn’t long before the chicks started to launch themselves at the keeper begging for food when the nest-box door was opened. The first to leave the nest box was Chickay closely followed by Bean. Eagerly following the puppet and blindly knocking over anything in their path to get to the food: in most cases this meant pots of insects carefully weighed out for each chick.

Being the smallest, Caûvette would often get pushed to the bottom of the begging pile, but once out of the nest she would stand her ground. She then developed a habit of eating a few mouthfuls then getting distracted and exploring the nooks and crannies surrounding the nest area. We took this inquisitive nature to be a good sign for her development. Watching her grow up, we might now be inclined to attribute it to her ‘ditsy’ nature instead. It will be interesting to see how this translates when she is released.

Dingle was the last to leave the nest. Photo by Liz Corry

Dingle was the last to leave the nest. Photo by Liz Corry

The youngest of the chicks, Dingle, was the last to leave the nest box. This was several days after Caûvette had left. Although it should be noted that after every feed and brief exploratory session the chicks would jump back into the box and have a ‘nap’ until the next feed. So he was never really left alone. When he did leave he quickly turned from being apprehensive to boisterous and more agile at moving around the enclosure than the other three.

Durrell’s Maintenance volunteers built a wooden ‘staircase’ complete with handrail so Harriet and Liz could safely access the nest-box when feeding chicks. The idea behind this design rather than just using a step-ladder was to avoid disturbance setting up a ladder each time, especially when the chicks were mobile. Plus, when they started learning to jump and fly around, the wide wooden steps became great additional perching points. In the last two weeks of June the chicks were so mobile that they were given access to the second shed section of the aviary. This meant the adults had fewer roosting areas to choose from. Soon the chicks had access to the entire aviary, whistle training began, and the adults had to be locked out.

Wooden staircase built so keepers could safely access nest. Photo by Liz Corry

Wooden staircase built so keepers could safely access nest. Photo by Liz Corry


Whilst secure in the aviary, the youngsters have learnt some of the basic flying and landing skills. At the start this meant landing on the closest solid object they could see…the keeper’s head! Whilst endearing, this had to be discouraged as it is not a behaviour we wish them to have around members of the public. This led to a lot of ducking and diving and a new game of keeper dodge-ball was created. The chicks’ behaviour changed within a few days and feeding times became a calmer affair (although it is all relative).

The chicks were gradually weaned off hand-feeds with insects just presented to them in dishes and the mouse diet swapped for the adult egg diet. Once this was established keepers’ started blowing the whistle as the food was presented at various target sites within the aviary. Within 24 hours the chicks had learnt to associate the whistle with food.

The chicks grew up quickly learning how to feed for themselves and weigh-in! Photos by Liz Corry

The chicks grew up quickly learning how to feed for themselves and weigh-in! Photos by Liz Corry

Once they are reasonably competent they will be given the opportunity to leave the aviary if they wish. The birds need to be trained in the same way as the adults, to respond to a call for food so we have some control over them.  Being hand-reared this should be easy. Within a day they learnt that the whistle meant food was around.

Flying back and forth between target sites was a little trickier to pick up. Only because, whenever the adults appeared outside the aviary the chicks wanted to be with them. If the adults went to the ground feeding, the chicks would go to the ground. If the adults rested on the poly-tunnel frame the chicks would perch on the highest shelf possible. Being whistle-trained themselves, the adults reappear whenever they hear the chicks being trained so you can imagine how often the chicks’ training is interrupted. We are now working on training the chicks to a different cue whilst in the aviary and then switching back once they are released.

Chicks and adults feeding trained to feed on target boards and scales. Photo by Liz Corry


Before being released it is important to work out how the other choughs react to new arrivals. If they are accepted by the already released choughs then it will be easier for the chicks to learn from the adults. However, some of the older birds may be hostile and territorial and management issues will arise.

For the first few days of the chicks being in the aviary the group was under constant surveillance. A camera was on the nest area for night time monitoring and keepers or students were taking shifts during the day keeping watch. A study was implemented to record behavioural observations looking at adult interactions with chicks. This will continue until the chicks are released providing valuable information for modelling future release management.

As previously mentioned, the adults took a great interest but none of it was aggressive. If there was any it was more likely directed at the keepers in jealousy of the chicks being fed and not them. The adult females would take an interest in the chicks. On one occasion a female was seen carrying insects in her bill towards the chicks. The mesh between them prevented any feeding if that was indeed her intention.

Once the chicks had access beyond the shed sections they would fly to be as close as possible to the adults when they returned to the aviary. In the absence of the adults they tended to go into the roost-box recently built by Adam and Harriet. The chicks knew without anyone showing them that they had to probe for insects. Whether this was between the timber frame looking for woodlice or in the soil, it was obviously innate behaviour. The presence of the adults at feed times has helped them develop this skill. They watched them and copied their behaviours.

Chicks will copy the behaviours of the adults. Notice the chicks don’t have their red bills at this age. Photo by Liz Corry

One behaviour they knew already was bathing. As soon as a water-tray was added Caûvette jumped (or stumbled, take your pick) into it and started flicking water in the face of the keeper. Not intentionally. It did take several attempts before she mastered the art of balancing and bathing, but don’t we all!

Caûvette taking a bath. Photo by Liz Corry

Caûvette taking a bath. Photo by Liz Corry

The free-flying group

There were a lot of firsts for the adults at Sorel as well as for the chicks. The adults adapted very well to the new residents. When they were locked out of the aviary for the first time they took up roosting in the quarry. This has continued and seems to be a good compromise. They spend their days away from the quarry flying between field and aviary finding food. Occasionally if it got too hot they would return to the quarry buildings presumably because the buildings were shaded and cooler. They also preferred that option during this year’s Round-the-Island-Walk when 200 plus sheep had congregated on the same patch of headland. Who can blame them?

Whilst they choose to roost communally and on the whole feed together there are definite divides within the group. The young male, White, and female Black will often ditch the group to make trips back to the aviary. Red who is no longer partnered up can be seen with them or by herself entirely. It appears that the romance between Green and Mauve has faded. Now the breeding season for them is finished he, Green, has been seen with Blue who has been preening him in front of Mauve. These three are often seen perching or standing together during the day.

Chough at Sorel. June 2014. Photo by Pierre Rauscher (4)

The adults started to use the cliff face adjacent to the aviary for the first time. Again this might be because it was slightly cooler than sitting exposed on top of an aviary. Following their movements became slightly harder once all the adults had moulted their radio transmitters. Three transmitters were recovered in the aviary; the other three could not be located. We suspect at least one was lost in the quarry. The batteries by this stage had become very weak making it difficult to pick up a signal at distance beyond 50metres. On one occasion, with no visual and only a faint signal, we had to assume the chough was fine and roosting in the quarry buildings from the echo of what sounded like a chough in a tin can!

We will not replace the transmitters on all of these adult birds. They have established themselves reasonably well in the wild and continue to use the aviary on a daily basis so we can monitor their health close up. As the 2015 breeding season approaches we may look into reattaching to the male, Green, to follow his movement as he, hopefully, attempts to set up a breeding territory.

Until then the adults will be kept busy teaching the chicks all they know about life at Sorel. Of course we all know the best lessons are the practical ones, which for our chough chicks means venturing beyond the safety of the aviary.

Health screening and diet analysis

Faecal samples continue to be collected to monitor parasite loads in the chicks and adults pre- and post-release. We are continuing to collect faecal samples for diet analysis although we have not yet braved sifting through them trying to ID insect remains. Both these projects will continue for the lifetime of the project. Any results will be published on the Birds On The Edge website.

29th June 2014. Photo by Liz Corry

Introducing Jersey’s new, home grown, choughs

Adults and chicks lining up at the end of the poly-tunnel. Photo by Liz CorryBy Liz Corry

Sexing, naming and identification

We announced the hatching of four chough chicks in April and May. DNA results, from blood samples taken in May, came back this month showing that we have one male and three females. We had guessed as much based on body weights when they were a few weeks old. Males tend to be heavier and of a slightly larger build.

In addition to this we built on their individual identities by giving them names. We intend to name any chicks reared for release on an alphabetical basis and with relevant names. They might not seem obvious choices to a non-Jersey resident but we think they are fitting names.








Chough report: June 2014. Part 1

By Liz Corry

This month’s report is being split up over the week so we can introduce properly our four new, Jersey-bred, choughs.

June was an amazing month of firsts for the project and the choughs: it marked a new chapter in the lives of the free-living choughs as well as for the chicks. In turn, the project moved forward into exciting new territory….and I don’t just mean Alderney!

Living Islands: LiveLiving Islands Live logo

For the first two weeks in June, Durrell participated in Living Islands: Live. This is an exciting cross curricular education project run by Alderney Wildlife Trust in association with South East Grid for Learning Associates. It offers schools the opportunity to bring the fascinating life of the puffin and other seabirds live into their classrooms. One of the many ways in which this is done is through interacting with the live webcams set up on the island of Burhou. Living Islands: Live links directly to the Key stage 1 & 2 curriculum, and is an effective way of teaching science and literacy skills, and promoting pupil creativity and confidence.

Living Islands: Live websiteDurrell was invited to take over for two weeks to teach children about the chough reintroduction project  and how it relates to the broader role of Birds On The Edge. Daily blogs, updates from the field and weekly homework questions kept the children engaged. At the end of each week live webchats were held for participating schools to fire off gruelling questions to team members. Throughout, and continuing to this day, participants can also leave questions and comments on the message forum.

Feedback from the schools was encouraging and supportive. The children loved to see the chough chicks being hand-reared and are super keen on borrowing Arthur the chough outfit. Although, at the end of the day, I have a sneaky suspicion that the puffin is still their favourite.

We have a confession though. We may have told a few white lies to young and gullible children. Well, not lies, more like omissions. During those two weeks something very exciting was happening on the project. Due to the sensitive nature surrounding it and to ensure that it worked to the best of our abilities, only project partners were informed of our plan. Known as “Operation: Moving day” our plan was simple yet fraught with a hundred and one ways to go wrong.

Operation: Moving day

Chough at Sorel. June 2014. Photo by Pierre Rauscher (1)The soft-release methodology has always been based around the need to release juveniles not adults. Young are quick to learn and eager to respond to the keeper. For one reason or another we have not been able to put this into practice. The birds available to us have ranged from 1 to 4 years of age at time of release. With a chough’s sexually maturity hitting around 3 to 4 years of age it means we have  in effect been working with teenagers. Hormones sometimes raging, reluctance to do what they are asked, staying out all hours, but still wanting their ‘parents’ to provide food and lodgings. Sound at all familiar?

The six flying around Sorel prove it can work without very young birds. However, it hasn’t been easy and there have been expected losses. Now with the four hand-reared chicks we finally have the opportunity to do what we set out to do.

Our plan was to follow the “hacking” approach used successfully with birds of prey, but with a bit of tweaking to suit our circumstances. The chicks needed to be taken up to the release site before fledging and placed in a nest-box within the release cage.

The advantage to getting the birds up to Sorel and released as young as possible is that the birds learn all of the appropriate social and survival skills at the times they normally would during their early development in the wild. The four birds might have some behavioural problems associated with the hand-rearing. However, being raised as a group instead of individuals, will make some of these obsolete and others should correct themselves during the post-fledging socialisation with the released birds.

Chicks moved from the brooder to the rearing cages once they could survive at room temperatures. Photo by Liz Corry

Chicks moved from the brooder to the rearing cages once they could survive at room temperatures. Photo by Liz Corry

There was a considerable amount of preparation needed before the chicks could be moved. At Durrell the chicks needed to be acclimatised to outside weather conditions. Room temperature was gradually reduced and skylights left open during the day. We couldn’t avoid the fact the chicks were housed in a brick building and that conditions would be very different to those of a netted aviary on the cliffs. So, adjustments were made to the aviary at Sorel to make it a bit more windproof and insulated around the nest-box. The chicks would be shut in to one of the roofed shed sections to aid this.

The nest-box was placed high in a corner with ledges and perches surrounding it to allow the birds to easily leave and return to the box. Choughs tend to explore their rocky surroundings before taking their first true flight. A chick might leave the nest and start ‘bouldering’ at say age 37 days, but not actually take flight until day 42.

A mesh door was attached to the next box so the chicks could be shut securely in at night. Photo by Liz Corry

A mesh door was attached to the next box so the chicks could be shut securely in at night. Photo by Liz Corry

We added a mesh door to the next box as a security measure. Until the chicks started to explore we wanted to be able to shut them in overnight preventing any unnecessary tumbles in our absence. More importantly it was to stop any rodents getting to them. There had been an increase in rodent activity in May. Holes were appearing in the netting and with hatches left open for the adults there was an open invite to go inside the aviary.

Adam and Pierre helped excavate ground and lay down half-inch weld-mesh securing it to existing mesh on the sides on the aviary shed. Any gaps in the ceiling or wall mesh were secured until the entire section was rodent-proof. Soil and turf had to be replaced so the chicks had something to probe on the ground without damaging their bills on the mesh.

We also had to consider the adults flying free as they would need to be locked out of one section to start with, and eventually from the entire aviary. This would mean a reduction in potential roost/shelter sites so we added two new roost-boxes to the polytunnel. We were not confident they would use them simply because they roost together and the boxes would only accommodate three or four at a time. They always have the quarry as their friendly alternative.

Chicks were transported to the aviary by car and on foot on the 2nd June. Photo by Dan Lay

Chicks were transported to the aviary by car and on foot on the 2nd June. Photo by Dan Lay

On 2nd June, the chicks were moved from the rearing rooms at the Durrell Bird Department to the release aviary at Sorel. We tried to do this as covertly as possible to avoid attracting attention. It was very difficult to do this with four chicks loudly chirping away continuously from the car park to the aviary. Once inside and settled into their nest box they were deafening with their begging. It can only be a good thing as it meant they weren’t fazed by the move.

Hand-feeding continued in exactly the same way as before with feeds starting at 7am and finishing around 7pm. The first feed up at Sorel was entertaining for all as the chicks begging attracted the attention of the adults from the cliff path. The noise inside and out of the aviary was ear-splitting as the chicks begged loudly and the adults wanted to know who the new arrivals were. The adults walked along the roof to get a good look into the ‘fledging cage’, but with the chicks in the nest-box they were not able to see each other. By the second feed the noise from the adults had died down and only a few of the single females wanted to peer in.

Chicks being hand fed in the nest box. Photo by Harriet Clark

From then on the adults would use the chicks begging call as a cue to fly to the aviary in full knowledge a keeper would be there with food. The adults continued to roost in the aviary whilst the chicks were locked in the one section.

In the next report we will introduce you properly to the newcomers.

Adults returning to the aviary after hearing the whistle for food. Photo by Liz Corry

Jersey’s Manx Loaghtan sheep – the choughs’ neighbours and friends


The last few months at Sorel have been a busy time not only for the choughs, but also their neighbours; the resident flock of Manx Loaghtan sheep. The sheep play a vital role in the restoration of Jersey’s coastline, as their extensive grazing helps prevent the spread of invasive scrub and bracken, opening up areas for more sensitive plants to grow, which allows a mosaic of heathland vegetation to develop. The habitat created by the sheep supports a wider variety of wildlife, particularly specialist invertebrates and birds, and, therefore, helps restore biodiversity (see Grazing for background). The conservation grazing project is a partnership between The Reserve and the National Trust for Jersey.

Manx Loaghtan are extremely hardy sheep which thrive on coastal cliff tops, so are very well suited to their important job of grazing the area of coastline between Sorel and Devil’s Hole. They were introduced to the north coast by the National Trust for Jersey in 2008, and since then the flock has increased in number from 20 to 231, and the habitat where they are found has visibly improved, with bracken much less dominant in the areas they frequently trample.

The flock is managed by local shepherds Aaron le Couteur and Sam Hilton (CS Conservation), not forgetting of course their sheepdog Mist. Every day of the year the shepherds do a head count and visual health check of the entire flock; this can be a very time consuming job as the sheep are somewhat adventurous and are often found  scrambling along the steep cliff sides or grazing at the very bottom of the cliffs close to the shore. The adult rams are kept off site for safety, except for the less boisterous  wether “Buck” who acts as the flock guardian. Despite common thought, the number of horns is not an indication of sex, with both ewes and rams having 1, 2 or even 3 sets of horns.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe sheep breeding season begins in October, when the breeding ewes are taken from Sorel to the farm to meet the rams and, all going well, fall pregnant shortly after. The first and last months of pregnancy are very sensitive times, so the ewes are kept at the farm for monitoring, but in the interim the pregnant ewes often graze further ecologically important sites. After a five month gestation period lambing begins, with roughly half of the ewes giving birth to one lamb, and half to twins, which have a dark brown fleece that gradually lightens to a mousy brown. As with all sheep, Loaghtan ewes can occasionally have problems at lambing, so a few orphaned lambs were hand-reared by the shepherds this spring; an extremely intensive job as the lambs initially require 24-hour care and bottle feeding.

This year 121 lambs were raised, and after 3-4 months on the farm, they were moved up to Sorel with their mothers. Although the lush grassland of the farm may look ideal for the lambs, they are actually much better adapted to grazing on rough coastal scrub. Work for the shepherds doesn’t stop there though, as a couple of weeks later the ewes and lambs were rounded up for their vaccinations. After a just a few hours all 231 sheep were herded into the fenced off aviary field so that they could be checked and vaccinated, all the while observed by the choughs perched on the aviary roof, apparently quite interested in the spectacle!

Sheepdogs Mist and Roy helping persuade the flock off of the cliffs. Photo by Aaron le Couteur

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAShearing is the next job, and the exact date depends on the weather conditions; Loaghtan wool is very high in lanolin wax, and in warm weather it becomes more viscous which makes shearing a much easier and faster job. The huge amount of wool produced is sold locally, creating extra revenue and reconnecting islanders with Jersey’s traditional knitting industry. Throughout the 16th-19th centuries the Island was an important exporter of knitted goods, so much so that the word “jersey”, describing a woollen sweater, is derived from the Island’s historical trade.

The final job for the shepherds during the busy summer period is weaning the lambs. When the lambs first arrived at Sorel in June they were still suckling, but once they reach over 12 weeks old they naturally begin the weaning process, ready for the ewes to be dried off. The lambs are, therefore, rounded up one more time and moved into aviary field for about two weeks, where they are out of sight of their mothers. Separating the sheep in this way allows the ewes’ milk to dry up and for them to put some weight back on, and the lambs to break the suckling habit in the least stressful way possible.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn addition to providing an extremely efficient habitat management service, the sheep also help produce essential feeding opportunities for the reintroduced choughs. Their grazing and trampling maintains short grass swards which the birds depend on for access to surface-active and soil invertebrates, and the sheep dung provides an important food source of beetle and fly larvae. Dung invertebrates might be particularly important for the choughs in spring and autumn when other insects are less abundant, or during dry periods when the ground is too hard for the birds to successfully probe into (see study by David McCracken here).

The maintenance of low intensity pastoralism is hugely important for the conservation of red-billed choughs throughout Europe, with several studies in the UK showing a significant relationship between sheep and chough populations.

Research on Ramsey Island, Bardsey and the Isle of Man (see IOM paper here) supports this link; in each case, reduced sheep grazing coincided with declines in the numbers of breeding choughs, and when grazing was resumed, the breeding chough populations began to recover.  The choughs at Sorel certainly seem to show an affinity to the sheep, and can often be seen feeding in close proximity to the grazing sheep.

Please, therefore, respect the sheep and the important service they provide to our wildlife when visiting the area, and remember if you have a dog, to always keep it under control.

Coming to a field near you…

Winter crops 2014. St Ouen's Bay. Photo by Cris SellaresBy Cris Sellarés

Following last winter’s successful Farmland Scheme, which engaged the help of many farmers in our efforts to stop the decline of local bird populations, we are pleased to announce that this year’s ‘Winter Bird Crops’ are being planted again across the island.

These specialised crops will be planted after the potato harvest and will produce a mixture of seeds and cereals. We have planted out such valuable crops as barley, mustard, quinoa, millet and sunflower (see advice here and free access paper here for importance of these crops). Throughout the winter these crops will provide food for the local birds, which, come spring, will repay this effort by feasting on the bugs and pests attacking the farmer’s commercial crops.

Thanks to a grant from the Co-Op EcoFund and the Countryside Enhancement Scheme, this year Birds On The Edge has been able to provide enough seed to cover twice as much ground as last year’s pilot scheme, to invite more farmers to join, and to expand to new areas such as St Ouen’s Bay.

We look forward to seeing the crops in full bloom and we will update you as soon as the birds start flocking to them.

Linnet 2. Photo by Mick Dryden


Is this why Europe’s farmland birds are in decline?

Swallow. Photo by Mick Dryden 6From The Guardian

New research has identified that the world’s most widely used insecticides may be a key factor in the recent reduction in numbers of farmland birds across Europe.

This new research represents a significant escalation of the known dangers of  insecticides and follows an assessment in June that warned that pervasive pollution by insecticides was now threatening all food production.

Some, neonicotinoid insecticides, are believed to seriously harm bees and other pollinating insects, and a two-year EU suspension on three of the poisons began at the end of 2013. But the suspected knock-on effects on other species had not been demonstrated until now.

This new research, published in Nature, has revealed data from the Netherlands showing that bird populations fell most sharply in those areas where neonicotinoid pollution was highest. Starlings, tree sparrows and swallows were among the most affected. At least 95% of neonicotinoids applied to crops ends up in the wider environment, killing the insects the birds rely on for food, particularly when raising chicks.

The researchers, led by Hans de Kroon, an ecologist at Radboud University, in the Netherlands, examined other possible reasons for the bird declines seen during the study period of 2003 to 2010, including intensification of farming. But high pollution by a neonicotinoid known as imidacloprid was by far the largest factor.

“It is very surprising and very disturbing,” de Kroon said. Water pollution levels of just 20 nanograms of neonicotinoid per litre led to a 30% fall in bird numbers over 10 years, but some water had contamination levels 50 times higher. “That is why it is so disturbing – there is an incredible amount of imidacloprid in the water,” he said. “And it is not likely these effects will be restricted to birds.”

De Kroon added: “All the other studies [on harm caused by neonicotinoids] build up from toxicology studies. But we approached this completely from the other end. We started with the bird population data and tried to explain the declines. Our study really makes the evidence complete that something is going on here. We can’t go on like this any more. It has to stop.”

Starling. Photo by Mick Dryden

David Goulson, a professor at the University of Sussex, who was not involved in the new studies, said the research was convincing and ruled out likely alternative causes of bird decline. “The simplest, most obvious, explanation is that highly toxic substances that kill insects lead to declines in things that eat insects.”

There was little reason to doubt that wildlife in the UK and other countries were not suffering similar harm, he said. “This work flags up the point that this isn’t just about bees, it is about everything. When hundreds or thousands of species of insect are being wiped out, it’s going to have impacts on bats, shrews, hedgehogs, you name it. It is pretty good evidence of wholesale damage to the environment.”

Goulson said that, unlike the Netherlands, the UK did not monitor neonicotinoid pollution and the EU ban would not remove the substances from the environment. “They are still being widely used, as the moratorium only applies to three neonicotinoids and some crops. There is still a lot of them going into the environment. The door is far from shut.”

A spokesman for Bayer CropScience, which makes the neonicotinoid that was examined in the study, disputed the findings. “It provides no substantiated evidence of the alleged indirect effects of imidacloprid on insectivorous birds. Bayer CropScience is working with the Dutch authorities and agricultural stakeholders to ensure the safe use of imidacloprid-containing crop protection products and to preserve the environment.” He added: “Neonicotinoids have gone through an extensive risk assessment which has shown that they are safe to the environment when used responsibly according to the label instructions.”

But de Kroon said new research, including his own, was showing that neonicotinoids posed an even greater threat than had been anticipated and new regulations had to take this into account. In 2012, MPs warned regulators appeared to be “turning a blind eye” to the harm caused by neonicotinoids. David Gibbons, head of the RSPB centre for conservation science, said: “This elegant and important study provides worrying evidence of negative impacts of neonicotinoid insecticides on birds. Monitoring of neonicotinoid pollution in UK soils and waterways is urgently required, as is research into the effects of these insecticides on wildlife.”

A spokesperson from the UK’s Defra said: “Pesticide use across Europe is tightly regulated to protect the environment and public health – [pesticides] are a safe, effective and economical means of managing crops. We continue to review evidence on neonicotinoids.”

As noted here, in Jersey, very few of these products have ever been used. However, their use outside of the Channel Islands will undoubtedly have a bearing on our wildlife too.

Read the abstract of the Nature study here

Inter-Island Environment Meeting – Jersey, October 2014

SONY DSCThe organisers of this year’s Inter-Island Environment Meeting cordially invite you to Jersey. This year’s event will be hosted by Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, the States of Jersey, Department of the Environment and the Jersey Biodiversity Partnership at the Durrell Conservation Academy on 9th and 10th October.


At this stage the organisers are still hoping to hear from anyone interested in speaking at the meeting. So, please contact the organisers by 31st July (e-mail address at bottom of page) if you are interested. Anyone wishing to attend the meeting should also contact the organisers.

ITC Entrance 3 G GuidaTalks/presentations are invited from anyone. The first day’s focus will be on reports from plant and animal monitoring projects throughout the Channel Islands. We have presentations submitted so far on the Rare Plant Register, grass snake, wall lizard, common toad, Channel Islands seabirds, Jersey’s mammals and red-billed choughs. There are several slots available for further reports and we would like to hear from anyone wishing to give a presentation. Posters are welcome too.

Durrell_Education_063We do not yet have a theme for Day 2 (Friday 10th October) so would be very grateful for suggestions and, again, offers for presentations. We will decide on a theme following suggestions and any submissions and hope to include contributions from Isle of Man, UK and France. Gérald Mannaerts Coordinateur PANACHE  (Protected Area Network Across the Channel Ecosystem) is proposing to include a workshop relevant to this important project to include one or two of the most relevant subjects (citizen science, management of MPA, marine monitoring,…).

We plan to include an optional visit to the vicinity of the chough release aviary at Sorel in the afternoon of Day 2. This visit may, however, be dependent on the autumn weather (think Jersey in October) and chough activity!

Chough at Sorel. June 2014. Photo by Pierre Rauscher (1)

To help you now with your planning, the meeting will:

• Start on Thursday 9th October at 10am (preceded by coffee/registration from 9am) • Timings for the first day will be 10am – 6pm. Lunch: 1-30pm – 3pm.  Refreshment breaks in morning & afternoon • Timings for the second day will be 9am – 4pm. Lunch 12-30pm – 2pm. Refreshment breaks in morning & afternoon • There will be optional dinner out on Thursday evening (venue TBA) and an optional bar meal on Friday evening (venue TBA)

A small charge will be levied on all delegates to cover refreshments and lunches for Thursday and Friday (please let the organisers know in advance of any special dietary requirements). The charge is anticipated to be £25 per person for two days and will be collected at registration. Payment of the full fee will entitle the paying delegate to entry to the Durrell Wildlife Park.

For those who may be attending from outside of Jersey there are currently rooms available at the Durrell Hostel Other choices for accommodation can be seen here

If you are interested in attending or would like further details please contact Glyn Young, the Conference Organiser, as soon as possible.

The organisers look forward to hearing from you and to sharing what they hope will be an enjoyable and thought-provoking Inter-Island Environment Meeting!

Details of previous Inter-Island meetings can be seen here: 2012 and 2013.