Upper Thames Wader Project

Supporting farmers conserving wetland wildlife along the upper reaches of the River Thames. Monitoring breeding waders with the help of local communities

Redshank Tringa totanus, in breeding plumage, Geltsdale RSPB reserve, Cumbria,


The Upper Thames area is important for its wet grassland and flower-rich meadows, and has historically supported large populations of breeding waders such as curlews, lapwings, snipe and redshank. 
However, surveys in 1994, 1997 and 2005 showed that all four species had suffered significant declines. The project sets out to reverse this decline. 
The project area supports large numbers of lowland curlew and lapwing, as well as wildlife such as brown hairstreak and turtle dove. In the face of pressures on habitat, flood risk and climate change, farmers, conservationists and local communities are working together to give nature a home across this landscape. 


  • Recover local populations of breeding waders - curlew, lapwing, snipe and redshank.
  • Support farmers creating, restoring and looking after wet grassland for these species, and other habitats important for local wildlife.
  • Monitor the numbers and productivity of local breeding waders on at least 30 sites.


  • 2005 - First wader survey undertaken in partnership with Defra. Key areas established where annual RSPB surveys should be targeted as part of the 'Lapwing Landscapes' project.
  • 2006 - Part of the Thame river valley added as a survey area.
  • 2006 - RSPB rotary ditcher starts being used by local farmers to create wet features quickly and cheaply.
  • 2006 - First workshop held with local farmers.
  • 2010 - First five-year repeat of the 2005 survey.
  • 2011 - The Upper Thames River Valleys defined as a priority area for RSPB work. Most of this area is based on the Upper Thames Tributaries Environmentally Sensitive Area, an area of approximately 270 square kilometres of river floodplain. The 'Lapwing Landscapes' project works within this priority area, and is re-named as the Upper Thames Wader Project to match.
  • 2015 - Second five-year repeat of 2005 survey completed with 80 sites surveyed.
  • Since the start of the project, we have worked with more than 200 farmers and landowners to survey and restore wetland habitat.


Planned Work

Focused work will look at the condition of farmland sites that are struggling to maintain their waders. The project will identify and support sites to create or restore wet features, and will continue monitoring of wader numbers and productivity.


  • Breeding waders are benefiting from the project, but continue to face many challenges. Curlew continue to decline, although the project area still has the highest population of curlew on farmland in lowland southern England. Lapwing struggled in the early years of the project, but seem to have stabilised more recently. 
  • It should be noted that the project area includes the RSPB’s Otmoor nature reserve. Whilst management of the reserve is not part of the project, waders here are flourishing and have the potential to act as a source population for the wider area. 
  • Around nine square kilometres of farmland have been restored for waders between 2006 and 2013. 
  • Around 70 sites are now surveyed every five years, covering more than 50 square kilometres. Between 45 and 50 of them are surveyed every year, covering more than 30 square kilometres.
  • The project has supported the delivery of agri-environment schemes benefitting breeding waders, by providing advice on the delivery of grassland management options and on the inclusion of water level control, and the creation of wet features such as scrapes to provide feeding areas for chicks.
  • The RSPB’s rotary ditcher, a giant rotating digger pulled by a tractor, has been used extensively in the Upper Thames to create new wetland features, providing feeding areas for breeding waders and benefiting other wetland wildlife too.
  • The project has also seen more than 150 farmers taking part in events.



The project has no formal partners, but works closely with Natural England, Environment Agency, Berks, Bucks & Oxon Wildlife Trust, and many other local organisations.


This project has been kindly supported by Cherwell District Council and Mr & Mrs JA Pye’s Charitable Settlement.


Coast on a stormy day

Charlotte Kinnear

Conservation Officer, RSPB

Tagged with: Country: England Habitat: Farmland Habitat: Grassland Species: Curlew Species: Lapwing Species: Oystercatcher Species: Redshank Species: Snipe Species: Yellow wagtail Project status: Ongoing Project types: Species protection