The rolling landscape around Churchstoke on the border between Shropshire and Powys is a mix of green fields and woodlands except for some steep-sided landmarks like Roundton and Corndon Hills where acid grassland, bracken and gorse remain. Most of the valleys are drained and improved with monocultures of rye grass and arable crops but a few remnant farms are a patchwork of ancient trees, unimproved grasslands, mires and flushes and full of restricted-range plants, such as adder’s-tongue fern and marsh valerian; there is also a visibly high number of small, day flying moths.
On the western edge of the Stiperstones, a few horse-grazed meadows at Pennerley are decked with mountain pansies and others retained for hay with sweet vernal grass, bitter vetch and cowslips. Green hairstreaks are common in the gorse edges; dunnocks now outnumber the willow warblers and tree pipits and even meadow pipits seem less common on the heather moors. There is no wistful call of a ring ousel but mistle thrushes still pipe their lament from the tops of the tallest trees. A cuckoo calls; these now only occur in the uplands and wetlands where there are sufficient hosts, meadow pipits and reed warblers respectively, together with their large caterpillar prey.
Wych elm is common within the woods dominated by oak and ash and some huge trees are coated in bright yellow seed; these attract feeding finches and even a coal tit. In the tall grasslands and rush pastures, a few curlews hang on but rear very few young as nests are rolled or mowed for silage and the young taken by foxes, badgers, buzzards and kites. The same story holds for lapwing which are now virtually absent, where once they too were abundant.
The curlew is now subject to groundbreaking, local conservation efforts through working with farmers to protect nests with electric fences, removing first clutches and rearing them safely until the flying young may be released locally, and monitoring adult birds through a colour-ringing programme.
The challenge is a fundamental incompatibility between modern hill farming methods and ground-nesting birds. Hence, large nature reserves such as Fenn’s, Whixall and Bettisfield Mosses in the north of the county and straddling the border with Wales are key refuges where perhaps 5-10 pairs of curlews and a handful of lapwings are present. The only challenge here is the likely high level of depredation of eggs and young by the many carrion crows. A problem much easier to manage than amending farming practices elsewhere.
Restoration of the raised mires is underway on the mosses through a huge programme of bunding to hold in the water and to enable Sphagnum mosses to colonise and so build peat. The reserve is on the frontline of the climate agenda as a place that will once again store a huge amount of carbon having been denuded of its peat first for fuel, then antiseptic bandages in the Great War and more recently garden compost.
On a clear, sunny day in mid-May, it is the many hunting hobbies rather than curlews or carbon that steal the show.