Practical Conservation or Scientific Research: Can We do both?

April 2023

Sophie Cunnington - Yellow Wagtail Project Officer

Conservation projects and scientific research both play vital roles to aid nature’s recovery in Oxfordshire, around the UK and across the world. But, although they can work so well in unison, this is sometimes not put into practice.

When research behind conservation practices is lacking or does not support the practice, management decisions may be based on incomplete or inaccurate information, and results in less successful outcomes and an inefficient use of resources.

A male Bullfinch - ringed last summer
A Kingfisher - ringed last summer

The need for evidence-based approaches in conservation has been highlighted in recent years. Such an approach collates scientific evidence and experimental design alongside other factors including, local and traditional knowledge, social values, costs, and resources to make informed management decisions. Incorporating experiments into conservation activities has the potential to increase the quantity and quality of evidence available for decision makers, increase the transparency and effectiveness of management decisions, identify knowledge gaps, increase a project’s value for money and enhance funding opportunities.

Despite the benefits of an evidence-based approach and the growing amount of scientific literature that evaluates conservation interventions, conservation projects have been slow to adopt this.  

When Wild Oxfordshire’s patron, Robin Buxton, started the Yellow Wagtail Partnership in 2020, he was determined to incorporate such an evidence-based approach into the project. From the start we have been collecting data on invertebrate and plant species across the project area to set a baseline that will help us to easily understand how management changes influence the local biodiversity.

Jessica Bouwer identifying insects

Two of our project partners, Church Farm and Lower Farm in Little Wittenham, have undertaken a soil health assessment of their pasture and arable fields. The North Wessex Downs awarded Farming in Protected Landscapes  (FiPL) funding to support the collaboration between local Lukie Tolhurst, and soil expert Elizabeth Stockdale at NIAB. Elizabeth has been instrumental in developing the AHDB Soil Health Scorecard to help landowners benchmark their soils for their region and soil type. This is particularly relevant to the new ELMS Soil Standards. The project included visual assessment for structure and earthworm counts as well as physical, chemical and microbial analysis. The results will be used as a benchmark and to help inform the farms’ future development of their regenerative practices. The team aim to conduct farm visits and share the process. If you would like to find out more, contact

We are also working with Andy Golser, George Candelin and their Ringing Group who have re-established an old ringing site in Little Wittenham Wood. Throughout Summer 2022 they ringed 349 birds from 27 species including Kingfishers, Willow Warblers, Grey Wagtails, Marsh Tits and Bullfinches. Their work will contribute to the British Trust for Ornithology’s Constant Effort Sites Scheme which provides vital data on the abundance, productivity and survival rate of birds across the UK. They have also carried out some ringing on Lower Farm over the winter.

Dr Robin Buxton and Lukie Tolhurst setting up an emergencetrap

Robin Buxton has been working with entomologists Mary-Emma Hermand and Jessica Bouwer to understand the insect populations and assemblages within the Yellow Wagtail Partnership project area. Equipped with dissecting microscopes and insect keys, they have been sorting samples from a variety of insect traps from different sites along the River Thames. As many bird species including the Yellow Wagtail and House Martins forage on flying insects, they are focusing their efforts on flies (Diptera). They catch the Diptera using emergence traps, and identify them to family and, where possible, species level. The team of three are beginning to see changes in insect assemblages between different months and the dipteran families that dominate, such as Phoridae, Cecidomyiidae and Sciaridae. They are not even halfway through identifying all the samples and are excited to see what else is to come.

Juvenile Yellow Wagtail

As part of the Yellow Wagtail Partnership research endeavours, we are proud to be helping to fund a PhD project at the University or Reading which is being undertaken by our Project Officer, Sophie Cunnington. Sophie is investigating the breeding and foraging ecology of the Yellow Wagtail in lowland England. The PhD will directly inform management decisions on the Yellow Wagtail Partnership project area to help us encourage Yellow Wagtails back to the area. Already one and a half years into her PhD, Sophie is excited to start fieldwork in the coming months. She will be conducting bird surveys across farms in the Cotswolds and North Wessex Downs to understand what influences Yellow Wagtail habitat selection and to understand how this changes over the breeding season. She will also collect faecal samples which will be used to identify the key insects that they consume. By increasing our understanding in these areas, we will be able to create better and more habitats for Yellow Wagtails and the insects they consume, as well as other farmland birds.

Sophie will also soon be releasing a questionnaire for the farming community to understand the role that perceptions and cultural values of farmland birds have on land management decisions. This understanding will be invaluable to the Yellow Wagtail Partnership and similar projects that engage the farming community in conservation. We hope it will provide an insight into what motivates farmers and land managers to manage their land for wildlife and how to best engage with them.

We are excited to work with universities and research groups to further our understanding of wet grasslands and the species they support. If you have an idea for a research project and would like to use our site to support your research, please get in touch.

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