Hampstead Heath: Where did all the sparrows and skylarks go?
Concerns more visitors to open space has led to a declining number of bird species
29 March, 2021 — By Dan Carrier
A skylark, larger than a sparrow [Pete Beard]
THE number of bird species on Hampstead Heath is falling and experts fear the heavy human use of the open space during the coronavirus lockdown will have made the picture worse.
Sparrows and skylarks are among those to have disappeared in a new survey of wildlife on the Heath.
Green woodpeckers meanwhile are missing out on food on the ground as anthill mounds are kicked away by walkers. Up to 15 million people visited the Heath during 2020, seeking relief from the virus restrictions.
But ecologist Dr Jeff Waage said: “The impact of soaring visitors is being felt. To put it into context, that is more people than you get at a major national park like the Peak District.”
He added: “We go there to enjoy bird song, nature and maybe spot a squirrel – we all want a piece of the Heath. But it makes it tremendously important to look at the effect this has.”
Dr Waage, who is a member of the Heath and Hampstead Society, has led a project to monitor the numbers of nesting birds – and hopes to use the figures to suggest new ways to protect wildlife.
The survey, run in conjunction with volunteer group Heath Hands and the City of London, discovered a 40 per cent decline in the number of bird species over six decades.
The Society now believes some sensitive areas, particularly hedgerows and copses that have had new paths worn into them, could be temporarily fenced off.
It added that the rise in popularity of “Forest Schools” on the Heath – outdoor lessons for children – which potentially disturbs wildlife, needs to be carefully monitored and possibly limited.
The Heath has traditionally been home to types of species you found in the countryside, Dr Waage said, and currently supports the only colony of jackdaws in north London. Song thrush numbers are also described as “good”, but with the bird rapidly declining elsewhere, the Heath’s colony needs greater protection.
Ecologist Dr Jeff Waage
Dr Waage said: “It was farmland and heathland for hundreds of years – but in the past century has become more intensely wooded.”
An annual Marylebone Birdwatching Society survey ran from the 1960s to the end of the 20th century, but there has been no comprehensive study for about two decades. The latest figures show around 50 species now make the Heath their home – a fall from more than 70 since previous records began. Dr Waage added: “It isn’t surprising, but it is not good news.”
Using a traffic-light coding system developed by national ornithological groups, the survey put different birds into green, amber and red, depending on their numbers.
Dr Waage said: “Around 40 per cent of nesting birds are on amber or red – which means they are declining or already endangered. “And some have already disappeared.” He added: “All ground-nesting birds, like the skylark, are gone. With dogs off the lead, you just don’t get them.”
As well as potentially fencing off pockets of vital habitat to allow nature to recover, a new set of information boards are due to be placed at key entrances. They will explain to visitors the wildlife they can spot and how they can ensure they lessen their impact on the Heath’s ecology.
Dr Waage added: “There are parts that are really sensitive. We need to think now about how we can both enjoy the Heath and protect its wildlife.” Skylarks, bigger than sparrows but not as large as a starling, usually enjoy open countryside.
Last week, to mark World Sparrow Day, the Heath Hands group urged bird lovers to adopt a “sparrow terrace” – wooden refuges around the Heath.
Across the UK, the population of sparrows has fallen by two-thirds since the 1970s. But there are other species which appear to offer some cautious optimism.
Larger birds such as buzzards and kites, which have colonies across the Thames valley, have also been seen in good numbers on the Heath.
Oh hello again, Mr Magpie
MAGPIES have a well-earned reputation for their intelligence and problem-solving – and the black-and-white trinket-stealing corvids on Hampstead Heath are no different.
Speaking to the New Journal about the different birds on the Heath, ecologist Dr Jeff Waage explained that the birds have learned to follow people as they walk through woods and fields.
They do this knowing that the presence of a human will startle a nesting bird into making a racket, therefore revealing their home to the hungry predator.
He said: “We have noted that they follow people, watch out for nests that are disturbed, and go and rob them.” Meanwhile, fears that eye-catching parakeets are competing with native species are unfounded, said Dr Waage.
He said: “They nest in holes, so the majority are in Kenwood. There are 30 pairs of jackdaws there too, the only colony of its size in north London – and stockdoves. The parakeets have