Blogger: Steve Rowland, Public Affairs Manager

Being office based I find it important to make time to get out and walk the ground with our wardening teams and find out a little more about their work managing some amazing landscapes for wildlife. So last Monday morning found me at a sunny Ouse Washes to meet our Site Manager Jon Reeves and Richard Woollard my counterpart at the Environment Agency.

At the Ouse Washes I wanted to show Richard the work we have been doing on the Pilot Project. This is an area of damp grazing meadow just outside of the Washes, which we have successfully managed for breeding wading birds such as Snipe, Redshank, and Lapwing. The Environment Agency are interested in this work as they have been charged by government in creating new habitat for breeding waders away from the Washes.

This is necessary because Since the 1970’s changes in flooding patterns, probably as a result of climate change and increased urbanisation in the catchment that the Washes help to drain, has meant that often winter floods are deeper and longer lasting and therefore the habitat needed by breeding waders is still under water when the birds want to be nesting in the spring.

For such an important piece of land, on Monday morning the Pilot Project looked surprisingly ordinary. A low, tussocky grass sward, with straightish ditches and a herd of curious beef cattle. In late summer it is all rather dry and bird less yet in the spring Redshank, Lapwing and Snipe had all nested here in good numbers, showing what has been achieved in the few short years since the RSPB changed the way the Pilot Project fields are managed from arable production to damp traditional grassland grazed by cattle. This has been made possible thanks to the support of Cambridgeshire County Council who own this land, Natural England for financial assistance through the Higher Level Scheme and the Environment Agency who helped set the project up.

Both the Pilot Project and the Washes themselves are managed by livestock grazing to create the right conditions for breeding waders. Each year on the Ouse Washes the RSPB looks after 2500 head of cattle owned by various graziers, worth somewhere in the region of a staggering £1,500,000, probably making this the biggest livestock grazing operation by anyone in Eastern England.

Indeed I think it can be said in these times of food security concerns that not only do the Washes ensure that surrounding farmland remains un-flooded, but also interestingly ensure the survival of the skills needed to raise livestock in a part of the world dominated by arable farming.

This spring was a good one on the Washes, with flood waters gone in time for the breeding season, but in five out of the last ten springs that hasn’t been the case and the need for the new habitats that the Environment Agency are charged with creating remains urgent if we are to save the birds and farming methods that have given us this landscape for future generations.

The RSPB are stepping up for nature by working with the Environment Agency and others to help bring these new damp meadows about. If you are interested in stepping up and helping to sustain the cattle grazing on the Ouse Washes then checkout www.riversidebeef.co.uk to find details of your nearest stockist or discuss commercial purchase of Ouse Washes beef.

Photo Credit: Ouse Washes Cattle by Steve Rowland (RSPB)

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