How Derbyshire conservationists are protecting the dipper

A dipper with nesting material rests on a stone in the River Wye

A dipper with nesting material rests on a stone in the River Wye - Credit: Archant

Walking along our lovely Dales, Paul Hobson investigates the projects intent on conserving the county’s wildlife

One of the artificial nests constructed by conservationists

One of the artificial nests constructed by conservationists - Credit: Archant

When talking of wildlife, conservation is one of the words most bandied around. Often it seems a simple matter, just put a fence around the area or animal or plant you want to protect and all will be well. If only it was so easy. And if it was, this approach would mean that many of us would be denied the pleasure wildlife gives us when we are out and about in Derbyshire.

Conservation is about active management, putting a fence around an area is protection, and seldom works. A good example of this is the stunning display of early purple orchids in Cressbrook Dale. Each year in May and June the steep grassy slopes of the dale shimmer in a glorious purple haze, as the orchids create what is possibly one of the most amazing displays anywhere in the UK. They endure and delight thousands from one year to the next. The dale is fenced but if all the grazing animals were removed the orchids would slowly disappear under an encroaching army of small bushes, scrub and, eventually, woodland. Natural England, who manage this SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest), actually utilise a very special grazer from the south-west – Exmoor ponies. The ponies are brilliant at halting the ever-encroaching scrub, keeping the grasslands open and conditions just right for the orchids.

Another conservation project that is hopefully starting to show results is the much needed work on dippers that has been happening in some of our most beautiful dales. The pristine nature of these dales often leads to a false impression that all is well. The rivers burble loud and clear, the steep wooded or grassy banks echo to the calls of redstarts and wheatears. The woods are surmounted by buzzards and ravens. It is a wildlife haven, but all is not always well in paradise.

Often the problem lies with mankind. We all want to walk and enjoy the resident wildlife and often we think, ‘Well, it’s only me. My presence won’t make any difference.’ And generally this would be true but the cumulative effect of one after another of us walking the same paths in our hundreds causes the damage. This has been the case with some nesting dippers on well-walked paths.

Colour ringing a dipper for easy identification

Colour ringing a dipper for easy identification - Credit: Archant

Dippers love traditional sites and will try to nest right next to a path if the situation is ideal. This was fine years ago when there were far fewer of us enjoying the dales. The minor inconvenience of someone standing near the nest just meant that the dippers hung around and waited until they left to visit and feed their young. This all began to change about ten years ago when more people started to photograph them and more picnickers unknowingly enjoyed their lashings of ginger beer and thick ham sandwiches in the sun right by dippers’ nests. One location that was always successful and fledged young dippers every year has not fledged any for the last few years now.

Natural England, which manages many of the dales, had to do something and asked me and a number of others to help in a project that it was hoped would help the dippers. Local ringers, led by Geoff Mawson, started a programme to colour ring adult dippers to try to get a feel of where individual birds came from, where they nested and how successful they were. Colour ringing is a neat idea that allows members of the public to phone in sightings of any dippers spotted with colour rings and individual birds can then be identified without having to catch them again, thus reducing any stress to them.

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One of the things I did as a photographer was to record the whole project and to help Natural England write a leaflet for photographers about how to behave and work near a dipper’s nest without causing stress or problems.

The other main thrust of the project was to place a number of dipper nest tubes into the river ecosystem. Dippers love nesting in darkish places – under bridges, behind waterfalls etc – so we created a number of plastic tubes and put them into places that were a little away from paths or obvious picnicking places. The first year that we did this the dippers didn’t choose any, although in other parts of the UK, including neighbouring Cheshire, they did adapt to these new nesting opportunities.

An artificial nest constructed for dippers

An artificial nest constructed for dippers - Credit: Archant

This summer, the circle was completed when I spent a few hours watching a pair of Derbyshire dippers building a nest in one of the tubes that we erected a couple of years ago. I was really thrilled that all the hard work had started to pay off. They still do not nest successfully in many of the old places but now that they have other potential nesting places this should no longer be such a problem.

I remember one of the ringers telling me that in some years the dippers in the middle of urban Sheffield on the River Don were more successful than on some of the most pristine river systems in the Dales. This was excellent news for the Don, but hopefully we can now enjoy the sight of dippers in Derbyshire’s dales without any risk that it will damage their chance of nesting successfully.