Big bang theory brings new hope for Northumberland's bogland birds

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Bird lovers are normally regarded as quiet, self-effacing and even touchy-feely. But not the foresters of Northumberland. They are using fistfuls of explosives to help save some of the county's most endangered birds.

Bird lovers are normally regarded as quiet, self-effacing and even touchy-feely. But not the foresters of Northumberland. They are using fistfuls of explosives to help save some of the county's most endangered birds.

In an initiative which may go down in the same category as fishing with hand grenades, officials with Forestry Enterprise began detonating dozens of explosive charges yesterday to help create new habitats for two wading birds, the dunlin and golden plover. This unusually violent tactic is designed to create about 100 ponds on the peat bog and open moorland of Keilder Head, hills close to the Scottish border, north-east of Keilder reservoir and the Northumbria national park.

The ponds, some of which will be 6ft deep and 8ft across, should then attract insects for dunlin and golden plover chicks to feed on at a vital stage of their early development, helping restore both species from their perilously low population levels in the region.

The dunlin, a reddish-backed wader from the sandpiper group, is about 8ins high, with a bill which curves at its tip. It has declined to just four or five breeding pairs in Northumberland. The golden plover, which has a golden speckled back and stands 11ins high, has slumped to 25 breeding pairs.

Perhaps even more bizarrely, the heathers, cotton grass and spagnum mosses found on the moors, which cover 4,000 hectares (10,000 acres), are also among Europe's most heavily protected habitats.

Already Special Sites of Scientific Interest and National Nature Reserve because of their rare plant and animal life, the peat bogs are also listed by the European Union as candidate Special Areas of Conservation, the highest environmental designation.

The detonations are an approved part of a £300,000 project to improve the moorland area which is being funded by the EU's Life Fund, Forest Enterprise, the local authorities and local conservation groups.

"A lot of the project is about creating ditches and felling trees, but it is also about creating pools for wading birds," said Bill Burlton, an environment officer with Forest Enterprise. "You can dig ponds but another way of doing it is to use explosives. It's very dramatic and very effective.

"The birds are threatened largely because their habitat has been shrinking. The crucial stage in the youngsters' life is when they hatch, they need to have access to small pools and boggy bits to eat these insects. Once they're big enough to fly around, they can choose their own feeding places."

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