Paddy fields help birds flock back to Long Valley

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 December, 2010, 12:00am

Thanks to the resumption of rice cultivation, flocks of birds long absent from green paddy fields in the New Territories are gradually winging their way back.

At the Long Valley wetland, where 4,600 square metres of paddy fields have been brought back into cultivation, the diversity of bird species had grown by 20 per cent, birdwatchers said, to 261 species this year, up from 218 in 2005. The trend has been most evident in the past two years.

Fifteen bird species new to the area in Sheung Shui have been spotted. Long Valley was spared dissection by the Lok Ma Chau rail line in 2000 after fierce public opposition.

Occasional cold weather and the loss of bird habitat in the north could be driving up bird numbers in Hong Kong. But the main reason for the surge, birdwatchers said, was the resumption of rice cultivation that had been abandoned some 30 years ago.

Now farmers are growing rice and deliberately keeping most of the crop unharvested for the birds' benefit. And the birds are responding. The crested bunting had been seen only four times in the past decade. But two have been spotted frequently at the paddy fields this autumn. Even the little rice bird, widely harvested for food in southern China and listed as nearly threatened internationally, has returned in flocks, with 20 to 30 birds spotted in the field at the same time and staying longer than before.

'A very popular dish in China, people used to hunt them massively to the verge of extinction. But what we are doing here is luring them back gradually, as the birds find foods in our paddy fields,' said Cheung Chun-kwok, who conducts regular bird surveys in Long Valley.

Cheung said since rapid development across the border was eroding favourable paddy field habitats for the birds, Long Valley was growing in importance. The valley has the largest paddy fields in Hong Kong and has been designated an Important Bird Area by Birdlife International.

Birds that feed on rice grains aren't the only ones whose numbers have increased. Other birds are visiting the area more, including a crested serpent eagle - referred to by birdwatchers asa 'star bird'. Recently, stunned birders scrambled to take pictures as the eagle swallowed snakes in the wetland area.

The five-year-old management programme emphasises co-operation among local farmers, landowners and conservationists to maintain and enhance the ecological value of the site. The Environment and Conservation fund pays for the programme. The Birdwatching Society and Conservancy Association implement it.

The scheme has been hailed a success but is far from self-sufficient. It needs an infusion of money every year to keep going. Last February, the fund awarded the two groups HK$4.9 million to run the paddy fields until 2012.

Vicky Yeung Lee-ki, senior project officer for the Birdwatching Society, said the wetland faced challenges such as more housing development, destruction of habitat, illegal dumping and the conversion of farmland into cargo storage.

She said the rising cost of agriculture and warming weather were further reshaping Long Valley's landscape; farmers were shifting to crops that were more profitable but offered less food to the birds. 'We hope the government can formulate and enforce a long-term nature conservation policy to preserve areas with high ecological value so that the next generation will also have a chance to enjoy them,' she said.