Image: Black-tailed godwits. Credit: Gordon Langsbury 

Black-tailed godwits were once an extinct breeding bird in the UK. Communications Officer, Oriole Wagstaff, looks at why these extraordinary waders need our help, to ensure they don’t go extinct again. 

Black-tailed godwits are tall wading birds. They are often found on coastal estuaries where they can be seen wading through mud, with their extraordinarily long beak, in search of food. In winter, thousands of Icelandic black-tailed godwits flock to the UK to spend the colder months roosting around our globally important estuaries while our small population of English breeding birds migrate to Africa.  

As social birds, they can form large flocks to feed but are loyal to one partner. They pair for life in partnerships that can last for 25 years. In England, breeding black-tailed godwits nest in wet grasslands, returning to the same site every year within a few days of each other to mate and raise chicks together. Like over half of England’s most threatened breeding birds, black-tailed godwits are ground nesting, this makes their eggs and chicks particularly vulnerable to flooding and predation. 

Today, these large wading birds are red-listed in the UK, making them one of the UK’s highest conservation priorities and a species in need of urgent action.  

Black-tailed godwits in decline 

Around 200 years ago, black-tailed godwits became extinct as breeding birds in the UK, likely the result of drainage of natural wetlands for agriculture and hunting. After more than 100 years, black-tailed godwits began to return to England to breed in the 1930s. In 1952 they began regularly breeding on the Ouse Washes, and later the Nene Washes, in the eastern Fens. By the 1970s there were 65 breeding pairs.   

Unfortunately, a series of spring floods saw numbers halve by the late 1980s. Today, there are less than 60 pairs breeding at a handful of sites in eastern England.  

Our wet grasslands provide vital refuge for black-tailed godwits, but 97% of their wetland habitat in the UK has been lost to agriculture. This means black-tailed godwits can only breed at a tiny number of sites which are carefully managed by conservation organisations, to give them the best chance of breeding success. The breeding population continues to face increasing risks from flooding, caused by climate change and development, and predation, both of which can result in the tragic loss of nests and chicks.  

  Image: Black-tailed godwit on a nest. Credit: RSPB Images. 

What is the RSPB doing to help black-tailed godwits recover?   

We're working with the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) on a five-year project to increase the population of breeding black-tailed godwits in the UK - Project Godwit. It is funded by the EU LIFE Nature Programme, the HSBC 150th Anniversary Fund, Natural England, the National Lottery Heritage Fund through the Back from the Brink Programme, the Montague-Panton Animal Welfare Trust and supported by the Environment Agency and the Wildlife Trust. In partnership with WWT, we are: 

  • Improving and managing wet grassland habitat at the Ouse and Nene Washes to provide the right conditions for the species to thrive.  
  • Monitoring predation on black-tailed godwit nests and chicks and using temporary electric fencing to protect nests. 
  • Hand-raising black-tailed godwit chicks to protect them during the vulnerable stages and provide a boost to the breeding population.  This is known as ‘head-starting’.  
  • Working with local communities to raise awareness of the plight of black-tailed godwits and the importance of protecting their wetland habitat into the future. 

This project is showing signs of success - breeding pairs of black-tailed godwits at our project sites have been increasing since the project began in 2017. Nests were recorded on the Ouse Washes last year for the first time since 2013, with 17 breeding pairs recorded in total on the washes and adjacent sites compared to just three in 2017. The Ouse Washes now has more breeding godwits than it has had in the last 20 years.  

Since the project began, over 100 head-started chicks have been released into the Fens, many of which have already returned and are breeding. For head-started birds to breed for themselves is an incredibly positive sign for the project and is helping bolster this small, vulnerable population.  

Black-tailed godwits have also been spotted at a newly created wet grassland site near the Ouse Washes, displaying to attract mates; a promising sign that this vulnerable wader may breed at other suitable sites in the future. 

The work involved in Project Godwit will give these birds a fighting chance, but with fewer than 60 breeding pairs remaining, black-tailed godwits in the UK are still very vulnerable.  

  Image: Black-tailed godwit. Credit: Chris Gomersall 

What you can do to help   

You can help to prevent the extinction of black-tailed godwits as a UK breeding species by donating to our vital work to protect nests and fledglings on our reserves. Your donation will help to protect vital habitat in the UK and provide safe places for black-tailed godwits to feed and breed. Donate now, today. 

While black-tailed godwits are not at risk of human disturbance while nesting, as they only breed on a handful of well-managed sites, many of the threatened ground nesting birds that share similar wetland habitats can be alarmed or put at risk by people and dogs walking through nesting areas.  

To help protect other threatened wetland birds, including curlew, lapwing, redshank and snipe, please watch your step, stick to the paths and keep dogs on leads while visiting wetlands during the breeding season, to help give threatened wetland birds the best chance of breeding success.