The grasslands of the North Pennines are of outstanding importance for birds as they provide breeding sites for ground-nesting species and feeding sites for birds that breed in adjacent habitats such as heather moorland.
The majority of North Pennines moorlands are fringed by large enclosed grass allotments and pastures. These areas contain abundant springs and flushes so support wetland vegetation such as Sphagnum moss and large amounts of rush. The mix of tall and short vegetation and the presence of both wetland vegetation and remnant moorland vegetation is ideal for many species of ground-nesting bird. Nowhere else in England are these birds found in such abundance – this is one of the most unique and truly magical features of the area.
The curlew, Europe’s largest wading bird, breeds in large numbers in these grasslands. With its characteristic down-curved beak and rich bubbling song, the curlew is one of the most distinctive birds of early summer in the North Pennines. Three other species of wader breed in important numbers in fellside grasslands. Lapwings select areas of short vegetation in which to nest as they require all round visibility in order to watch out for predators. Lapwings are hard to miss. With their bold white and deep iridescent green plumage, long crest and dramatic plunging display flight, their return to the North Pennines in spring is a welcome sight.
Preferring to breed in areas with slightly longer wetland vegetation, the redshank is a shyer species. These medium-sized waders are generally seen when they stand on walls or fence posts loudly calling to announce the approach of danger. Shyer still are snipe. Beautifully striped with a very long beak, these waders nest in dense vegetation and tend only to be seen when accidentally put to flight. That is unless their display flight is witnessed. During the breeding season, snipe display above the pastures in which they breed. They first fly up high and then plunge downward vibrating their outer tail feathers to produce a curious whirring sound known as “drumming”.
The sweet stream of song from a skylark hovering so high above as to be almost invisible is the epitome of English summertime. Sadly this bird, along with many other once common farmland species, has declined rapidly in England over recent decades. Largely thanks to the persistence of traditional land management practices, skylarks remain common in North Pennines grasslands, their songs mingling with the calls and displays of the waders which also breed in high numbers against a national trend of steep decline.
Areas of short vegetation and tightly grazed turf near the moorland edge provide the favoured habitat for the wheatear. Commonly associated with drystone walls and rocky areas, the wheatear is unmistakable in flight as it has a bright white rump. Almost always seen on the ground, either standing calling or pecking at insects in the short grass, wheatears are summer migrants from Central Africa and one of the first heralds of spring in the North Pennines. By contrast, the tall vegetation of North Pennines grasslands provides an ideal habitat for the grey partridge. Another species in national decline, grey partridges can often be seen in the early summer in North Pennines roadside verges as they shepherd their tiny chicks to insect-rich meadows to feed.
Whilst the importance of hay meadows for scarce and declining wild flowers may be relatively well known, the importance of hay meadows for birds is seldom recognised. This is an important habitat for birds nonetheless. The most characteristic bird of the North Pennines hay meadow is the yellow wagtail. This summer visitor from Africa is now becoming scarce and unfortunately the reasons for this are currently not known. A bird with a bright yellow breast and long tail, the yellow wagtail is most commonly seen walking along dry stone walls bordering hay meadows. They have a distinctive sibilant call and nest within the tall grass of the hay meadow.
Hay meadow plants are believed to provide an important source of food for the twite during the breeding season. This is a scarce and easily overlooked small brown bird but with a distinctive twanging call. Twite nest in areas of long vegetation and particularly favour bracken banks or patches of tall heather. Little is known of their movements in the North Pennines but their use of hay meadows is thought to be significant.
Compared to the springtime comings and goings of the many species breeding here, all North Pennines habitats are quiet during the autumn and winter. Two bird species do arrive in the autumn, however, to inject colour and life into the otherwise hushed landscape: the fieldfare and redwing. These members of the thrush family breed in Scandinavia and northern parts of Europe and migrate to the UK to winter in the comparatively milder climate. They generally form large mixed flocks that gather in the tops of trees and then fly down to feed in the rich pastures below. The loud clacking calls of the fieldfare and the high, thin “tseep” of the redwing as they fly over bring a breath of excitement to any winter day.