The Twite, the Cordgrass, and the Forager


Dave Winnard of Discover the Wild  joined us in Islay for a week of birdwatching and foraging in June 2017. Here, he gives us his account of what is happening to two local species that are under threat in his part of England.

DW: For me foraging is a gateway to the entire natural history world. It connects me with every species that lives in my area, and the different seasons are shown to me by what is around – from plants to birds. 

Recently I walked from the house down to the estuary to pick some greens for my dinner, a mixture of Sea Beet and Alexanders. Whilst harvesting some of these plants I could hear the sounds of the estuary, thousands of Oystercatchers, Dunlin and Redshanks all making themselves known as their calls echo around. 

It is the quieter noise of the lovely but rather non-descript Twite that grabs my attention, metallic in call, brown all over (except a few birds that have a slightly pink rump), slightly smaller than a sparrow. This small member of the finch family, also known as the Mountain linnet, is not doing well. In fact the RSPB published statistics that said this species has declined by 72% since 1999 and whilst the majority of population now resides in Scotland, the English and Welsh populations are on the verge of total collapse. 

The twite – Lord Lilford’s coloured plate of 1885

A flock of 24 of these birds fly just over my head and land on the edge of marsh ahead of me. You can clearly see the birds feeding through the marginal vegetation almost on the line where the vegetation stops and it becomes pure sludge mud. The birds are feeding on the seeds of the Small cordgrass (Spartina maritima), a native species, which just like the Twite is in decline.

The Twite’s decline is a mixture of changes in upland farming practices which are reducing its nesting habitat, as well as moorland fires destroying its habitat.  Meanwhile, the decline in the Small cordgrass is down to a non-native species, the American Smooth Cord-grass (Spartina alterniflora).

This American species was thought to have been accidentally brought over in ships ballasts during the 19th century. The two plants then hybridised to create the Common cordgrass (Spartina anglica) which has now spread over much of the UK wherever there is suitable habitat, salt marsh. Indeed, in some areas it was planted to help stabilise salt marsh. If reduced winter feeding areas of Small cordgrass continue to decline in this area, this could also become a contributing factor to this birds’ decline.

Back to common cordgrass – as a forager I am aware of it for other another reason, it tastes delicious, just like coriander, and is a plant I come out on to the marsh to collect when it is at its best. Many foragers are totally unaware of the fact that this plant has a direct impact on large numbers of birds and for the humble Twite it is a real problem.

Harvesting Common cordgrass maybe an answer to help control the spread of it and to stop it encroaching on even more of the Small cordgrass’s habitat. So there’s a way that foraging and conservation maybe able to work together to benefit that little brown bird.

What I find fascinating is that this is just one story, there are so many more just on the estuary alone, stories of how everything in the natural world is connected, how one species depends on another, like building blocks, add one in the wrong place and it can cause problems, take one away and the whole thing could start to fall apart. Nature isn’t static, things ebb and flow naturally, what isn’t natural is when we have created an unstable balance where nature can’t correct itself on its own. Japanese Knotweed, Himalayan Balsam and Giant Hogweed are just some of the botanical examples of total unbalance in the UK, all introduced by the Victorians and all outside their ecological natural niche so can expand without the threat of any natural ‘control’. All three now cause serious damage to the environment in one way or another.

I love foraging on my estuary, during the year I can collect such a variety of plants, including things like Fennel, Wormwood and Sea Purslane but what I love even more is the connection I get whilst out foraging. A sense of belonging and being immersed in the environment, understanding how things are connected, what the stories are and what I can do to help.

More about The Botanist and Bruichladdich Distillery’s sustainability work here >

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