Rare tree sparrows have bounced back from the brink at a nature reserve created on the site of an abandoned colliery, the National Trust has said.
The birds, which are “red-listed” in the UK because of concerns for their survival and the need for urgent conservation action to protect them, are thriving at The Leas and Whitburn Coastal Park in South Tyneside.
Numbers have grown from just one pair six years ago to 120 birds this winter, and they are successfully nesting and breeding on the three-mile coastal strip of land cared for by the trust.
Tree sparrows are smaller and shyer than house sparrows, and have red-brown crowns and black and white cheeks.
Numbers plummeted nationally by around 93% between 1970 and 2008, largely as a result of intensive farming which left little grain in the fields after the harvest to provide food for overwintering birds.
The trust took on the long-term lease of the former site of the Whitburn Colliery from South Tyneside Council in 1990, and it has since been transformed from an industrial waste ground to a wildlife haven.
As well as tree sparrows, other threatened birds including linnets, yellowhammers and grey partridges have made their home in the “rewilded” landscape of small woodland copses, wildflower meadows and scrub.
Newts, damselflies and dragonflies, butterflies, moths and hedgehogs are also found there.
The first pair of tree sparrows were spotted and successfully caught and ringed in spring 2012, and last year 10 pairs were recorded, with most pairs producing at least two broods of five or six chicks.
Dougie Holden, National Trust ranger at the site, said that after the first pair of tree sparrows were spotted, the charity worked with volunteers and the Whitburn Coastal Conservation Group to put in nest boxes.
The sparrows are fed on a specialised diet of red millet, white millet and canary seed.
Mr Holden said: “Their settlement in the area is remarkable considering how scarce these beautiful little birds have become in southern and western regions of Britain.”
He added: “Their presence on the site is a wonderful reminder of how things would have looked locally 50 or 60 years ago.”
Long-time volunteer John Brown said “we couldn’t believe our luck” when they caught and ringed the first pair of tree sparrows.
“We did a lot of work around experimenting with different bird feed types to see if we could come up with a mix that would attract only the tree sparrows so that their food wasn’t scavenged by other birds.
“Now we put out a mix of canary seed and millet at one dedicated feed station with the aim of attracting only the tree sparrows, which has been really successful in helping increase their numbers.
“The birds have put their trust in us and we are doing our bit to try to ensure that the species survives for future generations to enjoy them as much as we all do.”