Conservation solutions for lowland breeding waders

Conservation of lowland waders is a priority, but poor productivity linked to predation requires novel and effective solutions to reduce predation.

Redshank in breeding plumage at Geltsdale RSPB reserve

Overview

Declines in lowland breeding waders, such as lapwing, redshank, snipe and black-tailed godwit, have historically been caused by habitat loss. Wetland nature reserves have done a fantastic job of providing the habitats required by waders for nesting and chick rearing and numbers have increased in many wetland reserves.

However, waders which are restricted in range and numbers or occur at high densities within nature reserves surrounded by intensive agriculture are attractive prey resources for a range of mammal and bird predators. It is therefore important for the long term conservation of lowland waders that we have effective conservation solutions for the predation problems faced by breeding waders. Although reduced in numbers, lapwings are still widespread and breed in significant numbers on arable farmland where they face potentially different problems during the breeding season.

The research described here encompasses a range of different projects all of which aim to better understand the causes of breeding failure in lowland waders.

Objectives

  • Predation impacts and practical solutions is a range of projects to explore and test habitat and predator management solutions to reduce predation such as predator exclusion fencing, diversionary feeding and habitat manipulations.
  • Securing the future of the black-tailed godwit in the UK aims to understand the causes of poor productivity, implement conservation action to increase breeding success and improve understanding of the movements of this species.
  • The wader chick survival project aims to assess the importance of different wader chick predators on lowland wet grassland nature reserves.
  • The lapwing fallow plot project aimed to estimate productivity on fallow plots and compare it to conventional crops, to determine the causes of nest and chick failure and to assess whether predator exclusion fencing increases nest and chick survival. 

Key Dates

  • Predation impacts and practical solutions: Habitat manipulations aimed at reducing impacts of predation (2008-10), trials of predator exclusion fencing on reserves (2009-13), landscape management to reduce predation (2012-15); trialling diversionary feeding to reduce raptor predation on wader chicks (2013-17) and testing whether lapwing density, nest synchrony and availability of alternative prey for predators improves breeding success (2016-19).  
  • Securing the future of the black-tailed godwit in the UK: In 2015 and 2016, baseline data were collected on the causes of poor productivity in the godwits breeding at the Nene Washes. EU Life project began in August 2016 and will run until 2021.  
  • Wader chick survival: Fieldwork occurred on 16 sites from 2009-2013.  
  • Lapwing fallow plot project: In eastern England and Wessex, lapwing productivity was measured on fallow plots in 2012-13 and in 2014-15 productivity was compared between fallow plots which were fenced with those that were unfenced. 

Progress

We have identified the key drivers of nest and chick failure in a range of wader species and habitats. We have some conservation solutions eg predator fencing that proved successful and are now deployed to conserve breeding waders. We are in the process of testing other solutions that could soon address very specific issues eg raptor predation of chicks, or very specific situations eg godwits suffering predation issues on a site where traditional predator exclusion methods are difficult because of winter flooding.  

Although we have made much progress in identifying the ecological, field and landscape-scale drivers of predation, we are still seeking a landscape-scale solution that does not involve intensive control, exclusion or feeding of predators that can only ever be done on a relatively small scale. Our current lapwing fallow plot project is now complete but there remains a gap in our toolkit for a solution that could help productivity of lapwings in arable landscapes.

Planned Work

Two predation projects are active in 2017. It is the final year of testing the effectiveness of diversionary feeding as a tool to reduce wader chick predation by raptors. 2017 is also the first year of a three year project where we are using predator fencing. Some fields will be unprotected (asynchronous), others will be protected all season (synchronous) and the rest will be protected in early season only (early synchrony). These treatments will switch fields between years and will allow us to disentangle the effects of synchrony and alternative prey on nest and chick survival and subsequent recruitment.

At the Nene Washes black-tailed godwit project, we have used our baseline monitoring, to design a series of predator management options which will allow us to assess which combination of options is most effective at reducing predation (2017-2019). We also increase our efforts to understand local and migratory movements by tagging a sample of godwits with tiny geolocators which should tell us where they go and when after they leave the breeding site.

Results

Our research has identified nocturnal mammals especially foxes as the key predator of wader nests and our chick survival work showed mammal and avian predation accounted for 37% and 27% of predated chicks with foxes and raptors being the most frequent predators. Trials of predator exclusion fences designed to exclude larger mammals (foxes and badgers) were extremely successful at increasing nest success and overall wader productivity.

Although we have not finished testing whether diversionary feeding reduces raptor predation initial results are very encouraging. Waders which nest at high densities in fields adjacent to patches of rough grassland have lower predation rates illustrating the potential to reduce predation using habitat management. More work is planned to explore this further.

Our monitoring of black-tailed godwits in 2015 and 2016 at the Nene Washes, identified predation as the main cause of low nest survival and extremely low chick survival. However, although productivity was similarly low between years, the predators responsible for reducing productivity varied suggesting that a multi–species predator management approach will be necessary to recover this vulnerable godwit population.

On fallow plots in arable landscapes, chick survival was not significantly better on plots compared to crops. Although daily survival rate of chicks was higher when they were within fenced plots, the fact they are mobile means they leave the fenced area and therefore overall productivity was not higher on fenced plots.

Contacts

Coast on a stormy day

Dr Jennifer Smart

Principal Conservation Scientist, Conservation Science

jennifer.smart@rspb.org.uk
Coast on a stormy day

Dr Michael MacDonald

Senior Conservation Scientist, Conservation Science

michael.macdonald@rspb.org.uk
Coast on a stormy day

Lucy Mason

Conservation Scientist, Conservation Science

lucy.mason@rspb.org.uk
Coast on a stormy day

Hannah Ward

Recovery Project Manager - Black Tailed Godwit, Species Recovery

hannah.ward@rspb.org.uk
Tagged with: Country: England Country: Northern Ireland Country: Scotland Country: Wales Habitat: Farmland Habitat: Grassland Habitat: Wetland Species: Black-tailed godwit Species: Lapwing Species: Redshank Species: Snipe Project status: Ongoing Project types: Research