Land management: improving biodiversity

Working for waders

12 December 2018

As conservationists warn about the decline of wading birds across the UK, Julia Stoddart looks at joint actions being taken to reverse falling numbers and the important role that land managers can play

Breeding bird index figures published earlier this year by Scottish National Heritage and the Scottish government state that 10 out of 17 upland bird species surveyed have shown worrying declines since the 1990s, with curlew numbers falling by 62 per cent, lapwing by 63 per cent, golden plover 43 per cent and oystercatcher 44 per cent. Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) has said curlew and lapwing populations in particular are reaching crisis point.

But this decline is not inevitable if positive action is taken now. Working for Waders (W4W) is a collaborative partnership project that aims to halt and reverse the decline in breeding wader populations across Scotland. Current partners include Scotland’s Rural College, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the British Trust for Ornithology, Scottish Land & Estates, the Scottish Association for Country Sports (SACS), the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, the James Hutton Institute, the Heather Trust, SNH and individual estates and gamekeepers, as well as interested members of the public. These project partners believe that by working together, pooling knowledge and expertise and taking innovative steps, we can halt the decline and help these birds to recover.

Reasons for decline

A number of UK-wide factors are responsible for dwindling wader populations, including climate change, removal or fragmentation of habitat due to development or afforestation, and disturbance from activities such as walking dogs off the lead, cycling, horse-riding and wild camping. Research indicates that the most important drivers of the decline are habitat management and predation.

Waders need appropriate habitat for shelter, food and nesting, and in general, this means moorland, rough grazing, pasture, marsh and other wet areas. Alongside these requirements, predators whose populations are abundant – including mammals such as foxes and some corvid species – have a disproportionate impact on vulnerable wader populations.

The W4W partners aim to collate research and other material on waders and make current management advice available to people who can effect change on the ground. We will also use adaptive management, a process whereby successful and unsuccessful actions are identified through trials. In this way, best practice evolves and is kept relevant and targeted.

Quality scientific research is essential, as is community evidence gained from practical experience. Combining the 2, a principle established by the Understanding Predation project previously run by the Moorland Forum, is considered the most appropriate approach. While W4W is focusing on Scotland, similar wader conservation initiatives have been started around the UK, reflecting the national significance of the problem.

Role of land managers

Critical to the rescue of waders in the UK, however, is action by land managers. Whether you are a hands-on, practical manager or you occupy a strategic management position, consider how you can make decisions that help waders survive and breed successfully. Wherever you are based, there is information on how to do this.

Strategies include, for example:

  • avoiding afforestation on sites where waders breed
  • being aware of the likelihood of livestock trampling on nesting sites
  • avoiding destruction of nests when managing springtime grass
  • taking a targeted approach to corvid trapping and fox control during the wader breeding season
  • where possible, enhancing breeding and foraging habitat with wet areas, using extensive and mixed grazing regimes and cutting grass later in the summer.

Waders may only recover if we, as land managers, allow them to. Waders are intrinsically valuable, but a healthy environment with robust biodiversity would have stable populations, so their decline is a clear warning that our environment is not in an optimum state.

While some threats to waders are beyond our immediate control, land managers do have the opportunity to help waders recover from damage caused by previous and ongoing human activity, and to improve our wider environment. By using our profession’s expert skills, experience and knowledge, we can make the vital difference that will help wading birds thrive.

Julia Stoddart MRICS is Head of Policy at SACS

Further information