Image courtesy of Michael Bloomfield

The Pennine Twite

The Twite, often called the Pennine Finch, is a species of bird which is in danger. It used to breed in 12 counties in England but it now only breeds in the South Pennines. Numbers have dropped by 90% since the late 1990s and at the start of the project, there were only about 100 breeding pairs left.

As part of the Watershed Landscape Project we worked closely with the RSPB’s Habitat Intervention Officer (Twite Recovery Project), Charlotte Weightman, to help ensure the survival of the species.

The Twite, often confused with Linnets, Meadow Pipits and Redpolls, is a sociable bird which nests under rocky crags or in patches of bracken, heather or bilberry on the South Pennine moors. It can have two broods a year, in May/June and in late July/early August, and lays between four and six eggs in its nest.

The Twite is unusual because it only eats seeds – even when it is feeding its young. Without a good supply of seed sources close to its moorland nest, it will not survive. It searches for seeds on roadside verges, patches of waste ground and particularly hay meadows, within 2.5 km of its nesting site. The male does the seed foraging whilst the female sits on the nest. After the eggs hatch, both birds will collect seeds.

The Twite is quite fussy about the seeds it eats. In the spring time it eats dandelion seeds, in the summer it feeds on common sorrel seeds, and in the autumn it will eat autumn hawkbit and thistle seeds. In October it flies to the east coast of England where it lives and feeds on the saltmarshes, returning to the South Pennines in the spring.

It is really important that the Twite has the right type of food available or it will not survive. The RSPB have been working with farmers and landowners to restore and improve hay meadows located on the moorland fringes as these are the perfect feeding ground for Twite and to ensure the meadows are not cut while the Twite are still feeding chicks in the nest.

Since 2010, the Twite Recovery Project has restored 449 hectares of hay meadow, of which 210 hectares were re-seeded (that’s the equivalent of almost 400 football pitches!) with food sources specifically for Twite (e.g. dandelion, common sorrel, autumn hawkbit as well as locally harvested seed mixes). A very enthusiastic band of volunteers has helped our Habitat Intervention Officer, Charlotte, with the re-seeding which is all done by hand - a huge thank you!

Since the start of the project, the RSPB has made contact with over 107 inspirational farmers and landowners, with over 50 farms now in agri-environment schemes which also help maintain a good habitat for Twite. 

Helping the Twite also helps a number of other species for whom the hay meadows are important, including the Bilberry Bumblebee (Bombus monticol). This rare species of bee is in decline because they need nectar between the spring Bilberry flowers and the autumn heather. Flower rich hay meadows provide this source of nectar during the lean season. So what is good for Twite is also good for rare bumblebees!