The Upper Thames Tributaries encompasses an area of approximately 270 square miles of river floodplain, which flows towards Oxford. This area has historically supported large populations of breeding waders such as snipe, redshanks, curlews and lapwings. However, a survey started in 1994 and repeated in 1997 and 2005 showed all four species had suffered significant declines.
The project builds on the success of works at the RSPB’s Otmoor Nature Reserve, initiated in 1997, which remains the breeding wader stronghold in the Upper Thames. Since its launch, the project has worked successfully with more than 200 farmers and landowners to restore wetland habitat across the area.
Funding for farmers to manage their land to benefit breeding waders became available through the Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) scheme in 1997 and is now available through Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) once these agreements end. So far, 32 farms have entered HLS in the Upper Thames area. More will be added to this as ESA agreements come to an end.
The schemes aim to provide habitats with suitable vegetation structure and water levels to attract breeding wading birds. There are options in the schemes to manage grassland appropriately and capital payments to install water level control structures, such as sluices, and create wet features, like shallow scrapes, to provide feeding areas for chicks.
One machine which has been used extensively across the Upper Thames Tributaries and beyond is the RSPB’s rotary ditcher, which is a giant rotating digger pulled by a tractor. The ditcher is 10 times faster than a conventional digger and chisels accurately through the land to create shallow ditches and pools.
This provides an opportunity to enhance biodiversity by creating new wetland features which will in turn increase the number of breeding waders on a site. Depending on soil type and ground conditions, the machine can complete between 300 and 400 metres of ditch per hour.