Greater Manchester is their home but we could lose them forever

They like scruffy landscapes of rough fields, soggy ground, dense undergrowth, and rotting wood. Now a plan is being hatched to provide them with more such habitat before we lose them forever.

The willow tit, with its dull sooty cap extending down the nape, buff flanks, and untidy black bib, likes damp birch and alder woods and usually nests in decaying tree stumps.

But its numbers have dropped by more than 90 percent in the UK in just over 50 years. In their Greater Manchester stronghold, breeding pairs have decreased from 300 in 1984 to around 120 according to estimates. The RSPB says there are only 3,400 pairs in Britain and its conservation status is red.

In a survey to choose a bird for each of the ten boroughs in Greater Manchester, three years ago, the willow tit was chosen by Wiganers as their town's avian mascot, getting 84 percent of the vote.

Now The Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside (LWT) and The Conservation Volunteers (TCV) are joining forces to help willow tits to recover.

The Wet Willow Wildlife project is funded by the Government's Species Survival Fund. The fund was developed by Defra and its 'arm’s-length bodies'. The project is being delivered by The National Lottery Heritage Fund in partnership with Natural England and the Environment Agency.

The £25m Species Survival Fund recently announced 20 successful projects across the UK, with lapwings, water voles and dragonflies also in need of help.

The Wet Willow Wildlife project will collect data on the health of willow tits using volunteers, work with landowners to increase willow tit habitat and improve connectivity between areas where they live, benefitting a whole host of other creatures as well.

The project will see LWT and TCV work with landowners and stakeholders like the Woodland Trust, Trafford Council and Mersey Gateway Environment Trust, as well as partners in the Great Manchester Wetlands.

Matt McMullen, Senior Nature Recovery Officer at LWT said: “Willow tit in our region like woodland that many people would see as scruffy, with impenetrable brambles, rotting wood and wet ground. These damp areas provide the conditions for Willow Tit to dig nest holes, which they do every year.

"Making space for this unruly habitat is important to their survival and thriving in the region. It is important that their territories are connected. The undervalued habitat on which they rely can be lost too and become broken up through development, and if left can become too mature.

“We want to demonstrate the importance of the messy woodland on which willow tit and other special species rely. Though open woodland with ground flora such as bluebells, which we enjoy this time of year, is valuable, this habitat does not suit Willow Tit, whose decline we are hoping to address.”

The Willow Tit is one of the fastest-declining bird species in Britain, with its abundance falling by 92% between 1967 and 2016. Once widespread across England, Wales and southern Scotland, between 1968 and 2011 the Willow Tit had disappeared from most of southern and eastern England, most of its Scottish range, and large parts of Wales. Remaining populations are concentrated in central and northern England and through mid Wales, with only small and isolated remnants elsewhere.

Pennington Flash near Leigh, Wigan, one of the locations where Willow Tits have refuge.
The Willow Tit's population in England and Wales has dramatically declined, Wigan and Bolton are among its remaining strongholds

Some research has shown Willow Tits being evicted from their nest cavity by Blue Tits or nests being predated by Great Spotted Woodpeckers and possibly grey squirrels.

More than 15 per cent of the UK’s willow tits are found in the North West - with Wigan, including its Flashes - being a central point, with the network radiating out along river valleys. Bolton is another stronghold, with Doffcocker Lodge being a habitat.

Willow tits are black, pale brown and white in colour. Theirs is a distinctive, nasal 'zee, zee, zee' call, which is often the most reliable way to identify the bird.

The Wet Willow Wildlife project aims to boost the willow tit’s chances of survival, but has many benefits for people getting involved in surveying and volunteering.

LWT's Head of Landscape Nature Recovery Jo Kennedy said: “The Lancashire Wildlife Trust is delighted to be involved with this Species Survival Fund project which will make a major difference to the survival of multiple species that rely on wet willow woodland habitat, including the threatened willow tit.

“The project will help us to deliver our nature recovery aspirations and provide more people with the benefits of connecting with nature across the region. Working with our partner The Conservation Volunteers and local landowners, we’ll be engaging the public in an exciting programme of volunteering opportunities based around wildlife surveying and practical conservation skills as well as fun and interactive events.”

Ruth Crawford, Team Leader at TCV, said: "TCV are excited to partner with Lancashire Wildlife Trust on this project to restore and connect important wet willow habitat for threatened wildlife species.

"The project will take a landscape scale approach to habitat connectivity and highlight the importance of scruffy and damp wet woodlands for species like willow tits.

"There will be lots of opportunities for people to connect with nature, including citizen science volunteers who will help us map species connectivity across the landscape."

Willow Tit surveying in Bolton
Willow Tits nest in rotting tree stumps

A key aim of the project will be connecting willow tit habitats, eventually allowing these messy, damp and unruly areas to be created naturally, providing a haven for willow tits and other creatures to find food and protection from predators.

Other species like poplar hawk moth, small sallow mining bee (andrena praecox) and lesser redpoll also associate with this habitat and will benefit, some of which will be monitored during the project.

During the launch of the Species Survival Fund, Environment Minister, Rebecca Pow, said: “The funding awarded today will enable local authorities, landowners, farmers, and our protected landscapes organisations to restore nature at scale and provide valuable green jobs in the process. Only by creating bigger and better habitats for wildlife will we be able to halt the alarming decline in species loss."

For more details of the Wet Willow Wildlife project, visit here. The Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside manages around 40 nature reserves and 20 Local Nature Reserves covering acres of woodland, wetland, upland and meadow. The Trust has 30,500 members, and over 1,500 volunteers.