Guest blog by Alan Johnson, RSPB Area Manager
I used to get quite gloomy when I thought about the prospects for wetland birds in the UK. In my role as the Area Manager for the RSPB’s reserves in Kent, I have a particular responsibility for the wading birds that live on the marshes around the Thames Estuary. Waders, such as redshank and lapwing, are ground-nesting birds that have suffered worrying declines over recent decades. The loss of suitable wet-grassland habitat, due to factors such as land drainage, changes to agriculture and sea level rise, means that they are now increasingly restricted to wetland nature reserves. Five years ago, when we were developing our new Saving Nature Strategy, I was asked to set a target for the number of breeding pairs of lapwing that we hoped to have in Kent by the year 2020. It was intended to be something we could aim for, something to aspire to, but I gloomily predicted a decline in numbers, conscious that not only were they disappearing from the wider countryside, but they were struggling on nature reserves too. Scientists have worked out that if the population of lapwings is to remain stable then every year each pair needs to fledge 0.7 chicks, in other words; each pair need to raise seven chicks that are capable of flying over the course of 10 years. Any more than this and the population should go up, any less and it goes down. Unfortunately, and strangely, it seemed that many lapwing pairs were producing too few chicks, not just in Kent, but across the UK and into Europe. So, all rather gloomy then.
Now, however, I am fired up with optimism and believe that we can reverse the decline of breeding waders, and the evidence is on the RSPB’s reserves around the Thames Estuary. First of all, over the last few years we have worked with partners, such as the Environment Agency and local farmers, to create hundreds of hectares of new wetland habitat.
Our award winning project at Great Bells Farm on the Isle of Sheppey, developed in partnership with the Environment Agency, was crafted using GPS-guided machinery, which perfectly re-created our electronic design on the ground, leaving new wetland habitat that has already seen the lapwing population rise from 1 to 25 pairs in just four years. As we speak, diggers are installing sluices, creating bunds and carving rills at Higham Marshes on the Hoo Peninsula and Rainham Marshes in Essex. In total we have restored or created 613 ha of habitat over the last 10 years and have plans to deliver 326 ha more at Seasalter levels and Lydden Valley in Kent. As well as creating new habitat, we have been working closely with our ecologists to get better at managing our existing network of reserves. There are many things that we need to get right on wet-grassland reserves, but the most important things to manage are grazing, water and predation. We work closely with our graziers to ensure that the grassland vegetation is short enough and varied enough to suit the rather particular requirements of breeding waders. As ground nesting birds, they like to have a nice view all around so that they can see approaching predators. It is also important that the vegetation is short enough to allow the chicks, which, unlike many birds, are on the run as soon as they are hatched, to feed on insects on the ground.
One of the main things that attracts wading birds to wet-grassland is the fact that they are seasonally wet. The temporary pools that are characteristic of wet-grassland are a breeding ground for big numbers of insects, and this is the main food source for the developing chicks. In the South East, where water is in short supply in comparison to elsewhere, we need to manage water carefully to ensure that the pools do not dry out completely before the chicks have grown up and fledged. At Lydden Valley, our plans for wetland creation will improve the ability of the land to absorb flood events, so the creation of wetland for wildlife will also help to reduce flooding.
One of the main reasons that breeding lapwing do not fledge enough chicks is the impact of predators. The RSPB undertakes legal predator control as a last resort and only if it is supported by strong evidence. Following several years of poor lapwing productivity in North Kent we decided to investigate the causes by using special cameras placed on the nests. This showed that foxes were the main predator of eggs and chicks, something we expected following research work undertaken on other sites across the UK. In spite of the habitat being in good condition, our waders were still producing too few chicks, and now we had evidence of one of the causes. We have now constructed three new anti-predator fences and these, combined with fox control, have greatly reduced the impact of predation on our waders.
So, having created lots of new habitat and found ways to improve our management, the birds have responded! Over the last five years, the numbers of lapwing pairs has increased from 71 to 177 and redshank from 104 to 180 pairs. That’s an extra 182 pairs of breeding waders in just five years. Just as important for the future of these wonderful, enigmatic creatures, is that over the last two years they have produced a whopping number of chicks on our reserves in North Kent and at Rainham; well over one chick for every pair, which is more than enough to grow the population. Getting the conditions right for breeding waders means that things will be better for a host of other wetland wildlife, such as yellow wagtails, skylarks, water voles and dragonflies. An exciting time on the marshes...
Find out more: Lapwing numbers boosted by RSPB nature reserves
RSPB's Agriculture Policy Officer, Ellie Crane, is attending the Convention on Migratory Species Conference of the Parties in Quito - vital decisions are in the process of being made - here's a guest blog just in from Ellie.
. Lead is nasty stuff. If it gets inside the human body it has multiple toxic effects – for example in children it damages the developing brain and can have lasting effects on IQ and behaviour. We have known about the problems of lead for years, which is why we’ve phased it out of paint and petrol.
But we are still releasing lead into our environment, in the form of lead ammunition used by hunters. It’s not only people who are at risk from eating game shot with lead ammunition: birds are under threat too.
Large numbers of birds suffer and die from lead poisoning every year. They can eat gunshot that has fallen to the ground, mistaking it for food or grit. Many gamebirds survive shooting but carry shot in their flesh. These, along with animals that have been shot but not retrieved, are eaten by predatory and scavenging birds such as white-tailed eagles, that consequently ingest ammunition fragments.
This week the world has a historic opportunity to eliminate the threat of lead once and for all, at the international Convention on Migratory Species conference in Quito, Ecuador. A proposal is on the table to phase out all use of lead ammunition and replace it with readily available non-toxic alternatives. Right now, government representatives from the UK, Europe and across the world are closeted in meeting rooms deciding whether or not to support this proposal.
There can be no doubt that this phase out of lead needs to happen, for the sake of both people and wildlife. Last month a group of 30 eminent European scientists issued a statement summarising the overwhelming evidence for harm for lead and calling for a phase out of lead ammunition. This follows a similar statement from American scientists.
Some countries have already taken partial action to tackle the lead problem, but this has mostly proved ineffective. In England, for example, the use of lead gunshot for shooting wildfowl was banned in 1999 but monitoring shows that most wildfowl continue to be shot (illegally) with lead gunshot and birds continue to die of lead poisoning. Some countries have had more success: for example Denmark banned the use of lead gunshot for all shooting as long ago as 1996. Danish hunters have embraced the shift to non-toxic ammunition and there has been no negative impact on the sport.
So the decision on whether to phase out lead ammunition across the whole world really is a no-brainer. The eyes of the world are on Quito.
Guest Blog by Dr Alex Bond, RSPB Senior Conservation ScientistSituated 350km south of the main group of islands in the Tristan da Cunha group is Gough Island, a seabird Mecca home to 23 breeding species of seabirds from tiny diving-petrels to massive great albatrosses. In September 2014, I went to Gough on the SA Agulhas II as part of the annual takeover as the team transitions from Gough 59 to Gough 60 (yes, there have been 60 overwintering teams!). The crew of biologists, meteorologists, a medic, radio operator, and mechanic will be there until next September.One of the most important tasks during takeover is the Tristan Albatross (Diomedea dabbenena) chick count. These wanderer-type albatrosses breed only on Gough (with one pair on Inaccessible Island; they were extirpated from Tristan over 100 years ago) where mice – yes, mice! – are the main predator of their chicks. You might be wondering how a 25g mouse can take down a 9kg albatross chick, but I can assure you that a) it does happen, and b) it’s a big problem.
Dr Alex Bond with Tristan albatross chickTypically, these large albatrosses raise a chick successfully in 60-70% of their breeding attempts, and it takes so long (about 10-11 months) that they only breed every other year. But because of mouse predation, the albatrosses on Gough raise a chick successfully in only 30% of their breeding attempts. Worst ever year for Tristan Albatross chicksCombined with mortality of adults in longline fishing operations in the Southern Ocean and mouse predation, Tristan Albatross are struggling. But knowing this did nothing to prepare me for the 2014 albatross chick count.163 chicks. From just less than 1,700 nests counted in January. The lowest ever recorded for Tristan Albatross. Ever.Searching the empty hills for missing chicksWhen we landed in Giant Petrel Valley on the west end of the island, we immediately knew something was wrong. Instead of seeing tens or hundreds of white dots sitting in nests on the hills from the helicopter, we saw none. Where there were 541 adults happily tending nests in January, there were now 14 chicks in Giant Petrel Valley and West Point. When the three teams met at the end of a long day of hiking (and not seeing many albatross chicks), we were all worried we had missed some chicks, or forgotten to check certain places, but we hadn’t – the birds just weren’t there.
Giant Petrel Valley, Gough Island with very few Tristan albatross chicks this year. The second day went much the same as the first – 16 chicks out of 192 nests on Green Hill, 23 chicks where 274 adults were found only months before on Spire Crag, and on, and on.Predation by miceBut how does this happen? The albatrosses, having evolved to breed on islands without land predators, have no behavioural experience with mice. The mice attack the chick (and sometimes the parents simply sit). After one or two nights, and attacks of three, four, five or more mice, the chick dies, and just like that, the adults’ investment in incubating and egg for months, and feeding a chick for weeks is for naught. Conservation efforts The RSPB Centre for Conservation Science recently published a paper on the prioritization of UK Overseas Territories for eradications of introduced species, and Gough came out on top. We’ve spent the last 15 years gathering evidence on the effects of mice, studying their biology and behaviour, conducting bait trials, and consulting with our partners on Tristan da Cunha, in South Africa, and with experts overseas. We’re hoping for a green light soon on an eradication of mice from Gough, and should have a decision in early 2015. In the meantime, the remaining albatross chicks are preparing to depart, and in a few short months, the adults will return to try again, and I’ll be back on Gough next September, hopefully with more albatross chicks.Find out more about our work on Tristan da Chuna and also see coverage of the Tristan Albatross breeding season on the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP) website.Our work on the Tristan Islands has been supported by many funders including OTEP, Darwin, Darwin Plus, the European Union’s EDF-9 and ACAP.