The black-tailed godwit became extinct as a UK breeding bird in the 1800s. They returned as a breeding bird in the 1930s, but by 2016 their main nesting spot, Nene Washes in Peterborough, still held only 42 breeding pairs.
Now, thanks to the hard work of the RSPB and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT), there is hope for these lanky, orange-breasted wading birds.
The RSPB and the WWT joined forces under the Back from the Brink partnership to pioneer an innovative approach – hand-rearing black-tailed godwit chicks, or ‘head-starting’. A common technique with amphibians and reptiles, head-starting with birds is relatively new and this was the first time it was tried with wading birds in the UK.
The team knew, however, that bold action was needed to make sure that at least some chicks survived predation and spring flooding. Godwit parents also lay a second clutch once the first one is removed, so removing eggs potentially doubles the number of chicks.
A blooming population
This project has been a huge success. Over the last three seasons the team has released 112 head-started godwit chicks into the Fens, doubling the UK’s breeding population. RSPB Ouse Washes, for example, has more godwits now than it has had in the last 20 years.
The ‘head-started’ chicks have now been spotted on their migration paths as far away as Senegal and Morocco and some are already raising families of their own.
Rebecca Pitman, RSPB Senior Project Manager for Project Godwit, says: “It’s been amazing to see the team’s years of hard work and dedication really pay off, and to know that these birds now stand a fighting chance. With fewer than 50 breeding pairs, however, black-tailed godwits in the UK are still very vulnerable. They really need all the help they can get.
“Project Godwit is still working hard to give black-tailed godwits that helping hand. As well as hand-rearing the chicks, the project is also creating and managing wet grassland habitat in the East Anglian Fens. We are also studying their movements to understand where they go on migration and are continuing to work with local communities to help conserve black-tailed godwits and their wetland habitat into the future.”
Project Godwit is a partnership between RSPB and WWT with major funding from the EU LIFE Nature Programme, HSBC 150th Anniversary Fund, Natural England, the Heritage Lottery Fund through the Back from the Brink Programme and the Montague-Panton Animal Welfare Trust.