River Otter “bird wardens” praised for three decades of rare birdlife conservation

A Devon landowner has praised a husband and wife for their dedication as River Otter bird wardens for almost 30 years and the role they’ve played in reviving a rare species of bird.

Ever since they moved to East Devon from London in 1990, octogenarians Doug and Joan Cullen have volunteered for the Pebblebed Heaths Conservation Trust, which was set up by landowner Clinton Devon Estates in 2006 to manage the heathland and conserve the surrounding landscape, including the River Otter Estuary.

In addition to monitoring bird numbers on the Otter Estuary and advising on additional habitat creation work on the adjacent wetland meadows, the couple’s work has included influencing habitat management around Stantyway Farm in Otterton for cirl buntings, a rare farmland bird. The population of the species had declined so much, due to the intensification of farming and loss of habitat, that by 1989 the RSPB estimated that there were just 118 pairs remaining in the whole of Britain, confined only to South Devon.

After the couple spotted a pair near the farm around 10 years ago, they instigated a collaborative effort with the then tenant Martin Williams, Cath Jeffs, Cirl Bunting Project Manager and Deborah Deveney, Cirl Bunting Project Officer for the RSPB and Dr Sam Bridgewater, Head of Wildlife and Conservation for Clinton Devon Estates, owners of the farm, to improve their chances of survival.

At the time, the birds hadn’t been seen this side of the River Exe Estuary in at least 20 years, but the couple’s most recent count in January put the cirl bunting population in Otterton at 28, with another pair spotted over near Weston, Sidmouth. Helping the cirl buntings has had a knock-on effect: Doug and Joan have also helped boost Otterton’s winter and breeding skylark population.

“When we first discovered them, we went straight to Sam and he was as keen as us to do what we could to help reinstate the area as a habitat for them,” recalls Joan, 85, who grew up in Honiton.

“The objective was to keep them there, so the initial focus was how best to improve the habitat. One way was substituting their main food source of arable plant seeds, with a millet and canary seed mix. The retention of over-wintering stubble fields, which provide a winter seed food source, the management of broad grassy field margins to ensure summer feeding opportunities and encouraging dense hedgerows for nesting, were important.”

The collective’s efforts have been continued and expanded by farmers Sam and Nell Walker who took over the tenancy of Stantyway Farm, a 264-acre arable farm which was certified organic last year, when Martin retired.

Downstream, along the Lower Ottery Estuary at Budleigh Salterton, the couple has helped improve the habitat for migrational birds including establishing scrapes – water beds of varying depths – and managing large reed beds. A combination between their efforts to improve the habitat and the impact of climate change has resulted in an increase in migrational bird species at the estuary.

“Our whole aim was to encourage birdlife and wildlife to the area,” explained Doug, 84, who is originally from Hackney, East London. “So we looked at how the landscape could be improved. The scrapes are good because different species like different depths. You could say that it’s been landscaped for birds.”

Joan and Doug walk along the River Otter most days watching out for the birds. Their early work served as a precursor for the evolving Lower Otter Restoration Project, a joint partnership between Clinton Devon Estates and the Environment Agency deemed crucial in restoring the ecological health and inter-tidal habitats of the lower Otter valley and adapting to climate change.

“Birdlife and wildlife have increased hugely over the years and we’re seeing more rare species,” said Doug. “And we’re getting more migrants staying the whole year, rather than breeding here and then going.”

The couple estimate that they’ve been volunteering for around 35 years in total, starting with the RSPB and the Kent Wildlife Trust when they worked in London, Doug as a printer for the London Evening Standard, and Joan as a manager in the fraud department of a bank.

“We took early retirement and haven’t stopped since,” Joan said. “Sometimes I feel we’ve been busier than when we were working!”

“We were never going to put our feet up,” added Doug. “You get stamp collectors, and you get bird collectors. Bird watching is an enjoyable part of life.”

Dr Bridgewater, said: “Doug and Joan have played a significant role in improving the future prospects of the cirl buntings in Devon and the species as a whole. We are most grateful to both of them for being our eyes and ears along the Lower Otter Estuary for almost 30 years; their enthusiasm and dedication has had a direct impact on bird populations there.”

Ms Jeffs, added: “People like Doug and Joan really make a difference and are part of why my job is so rewarding. It has been a pleasure working with them and sharing the ups and downs of nature recovery. Clinton Devon Estates has been brilliant at supporting their tenants to be wildlife friendly and they should be proud of what they are doing for out threatened farmland species.”