BirdsConservationNaturePhoto storyScottish Wildlife

How Polish ponies help British birds

Residential volunteering at RSPB nature reserve Loch of Strathbeg taught me about the conservation connections between British Birds and Konik Ponies. Image © Laura J P Richardson.

In the birding and birdwatching community a bird like this is frequently known as an LBJ, code for “Little Brown Job”. They are a special type of identification challenge, because no matter how much variation there is between male finches, tits and sparrows - their females counterparts are always small, speckled and brown. Even the most skilled birder may need to double check key features in a bird book. Lord help us all if it’s between plumages or a juvenile.

Thankfully, you don’t have to refer to a bird book for this one - I’ve got you covered. The bird in question is a Reed Bunting.

But Laura, I hear you say, if it's called a Reed Bunting why oh why isn’t it sat in some reeds?!

Let me give you some background.

Living by the Loch 

These photos were all taken at the Loch of Strathbeg nature reserve in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. No, not in a scrap heap! In fact it is a beautiful place where I was lucky enough to spend two weeks as a residential volunteer in the summer of 2013.

The reserve is run by the RSPB, the charity that fostered and grew my love of bird watching, and volunteering here was great for so many reasons. There’s nothing quite like living in a place like this, especially when you’re there to get well stuck in! Between looking after the visitor centre, checking moth traps and assisting with odd jobs around the reserve I was out with my camera. The hides themselves were in prime positions to see some amazing wildlife, a testament to how well the reserve is managed. However, some of the really interesting shots came in less expected places, when I was more behind the scenes.

Residential volunteering at RSPB nature reserve Loch of Strathbeg taught me about the conservation connections between British Birds and Konik Ponies. Image © Laura J P Richardson.
An impressive view from one of the hides.

It wasn’t just that I had access to different areas, it was the time I was able to spend observing wildlife, in a place that had wildlife at the sole of its purpose. Surrounding the small area where old wire fences await being reused or recycled, are beautiful lakes including the largest dune loch in Britain, ravishing reed-beds, small clumps of trees (enough for a Sparrow-hawk to live in!), wildflower meadows, specially managed crop fields and marshland that stretches all the way to the dune-lined sea. Breathing it all in from dawn til dusk allowed me to become part of the reserve’s natural rhythm. 

Polish Ponies and British Birds

One of my favourite parts of the fortnight was learning about some of the special connections within the reserve. As part of a habitat re-generation plan three small herds of Konik ponies were introduced to the reserve. These prehistoric looking equines were brought over from Poland and are closely related to a breed of horse once native to the UK called the Tarpan. Working with them was a pleasure and seeing the results they produced? So impressive. Together with the careful management of the RSPB staff, these ponies have created crucial habitat for migrating wading birds, wintering geese and more.  

Residential volunteering at RSPB nature reserve Loch of Strathbeg taught me about the conservation connections between British Birds and Konik Ponies. Image © Laura J P Richardson.
I won't lie, I was thrilled to be there in foaling season!

Waders and geese aren’t the only birds these ponies help. The number of Reed Buntings in the UK fell by 31% from 1970 and 2007 and since then they have made only a partial recovery. The cause? The decline has been linked with a reduction of damp habitats and food sources on farmland (previously their main habitat). Both land managers and garden owners can take steps to help these birds (some great resources are here).

Specialised habitat management and nature-friendly crop farming has given these birds a great choice of both food sources and nesting locations on this wonderful nature reserve. From hedgerows, to ditches, to set-aside, they can choose any natural habitat they wish! So what do they choose?

Residential volunteering at RSPB nature reserve Loch of Strathbeg taught me about the conservation connections between British Birds and Konik Ponies. Image © Laura J P Richardson.
Scrap Metal Bunting?
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Residential volunteering at RSPB nature reserve Loch of Strathbeg taught me about the conservation connections between British Birds and Konik Ponies. Image © Laura J P Richardson.

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