KEEPING a watch on birdlife and looking for early signs of species decline need not be only a scientific exercise for experts. Bird-watching is a way of enjoying the countryside, wildlife of all kinds and, as Ludlow amateur ornithologists have found, the companionship of others with similar interests.

Between 10 and 20 members of the Shropshire Ornithological Society join the Ludlow branch's regular field trips including expert wildlife photographer Gareth Thomas. Here branch secretary Margaret Bennett outlines the history of the group and its activities:

The Ludlow branch of the Shropshire Ornithological Society has arranged 17 field trips to different venues this year and two indoor meetings.

Our members are simply people who enjoy watching birds, listening to them, learning about them, and visiting different habitats to see species which may not be found locally.

So equipped with binoculars, we go out on field trips to nature reserves, lakes or reservoirs where we are likely to see between 30 and 40 different bird species. Some of the group are more expert than others and can help with identification of those little brown birds that all look alike, or with distinguishing one bird song from another.

The Ludlow branch was started in 1991 by a few birding enthusiasts, many of whom are still on the committee. In that first year the programme consisted of a film show and an illustrated talk, together with three field walks around Whitcliffe, Clee Hill and Batchcott. Committee members also undertook a sponsored birdwatch, raising £200 towards the production costs of the Shropshire Breeding Bird Atlas.

Since then, our programme has become more adventurous as we have ventured further afield, and increased the number of field trips each year.

We have visited Symonds Yat and seen the peregrines nesting; walked along the coast at Conwy where oyster-catchers were being ringed and released. (One bird was found to have been ringed on that same coast 20 years ago.)

We have seen little egrets at Llanelli, dippers in Downton Gorge, and hobbies at Whixall Moss, merlins and ring ouzels on the Long Mynd, not to mention wood warblers and pied flycatchers on Whitcliffe Common. Some days we go out and there seem to be nothing but rooks and pigeons, but the sites we visit are usually in beautiful locations, so even if birds are sparse, we may find wild flowers or butterflies to enjoy.

Several members are undertaking surveys of different species to monitor changes in the population, in local farms and woodland, and on Whitcliffe Common and Gallows Bank.

Some birds of prey, such as red kite, peregrine and hobby, have increased in number, while others, like lapwing, skylark, grey partridge and turtle doves are decreasing at an alarming rate.

We all hope that by promoting an interest in birds and the countryside, we may help to preserve the natural habitats of birds and stop the decline in numbers, so that future generations will experience the pleasures of bird-watching.