In celebration of World Wetland Day RSPB’s Sara Humphrey and Morwenna Alldis reveal the importance of the UK’s wetlands and how the RSPB is helping to look after these threatened spaces and the special wildlife that relies on them.

Today we’re celebrating World Wetland Day. These wet and wonderful places are really important homes for some of our most threatened UK wildlife, including cranes and black-tailed godwits.

Photo: Black-tailed godwit. Credit: Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)

Did you know that wetlands….?

  1. Provide protection from floods and storms - each acre of wetland can absorb up to 1.5 million gallons of floodwater.
  2. Wetlands help regulate our climate by storing carbon – peatlands store twice as much carbon as forests.
  3. Wetlands offer breeding, feeding, and wintering grounds for birds, mammals, and insects.

However, these special places are under increasing pressure. Over 10% of our UK freshwater and wetland wildlife are threatened with extinction, and our vital wetland spaces have declined by a shocking 90% in the UK over the past millennium.

In more recent times climate change, as well as agricultural and urban development, have all harmed our wetlands. The RSPB is trying to change this in partnership with other conservation organisations, local authorities, and local communities. We are working together to restore and protect wetlands across England, and help the wildlife that depends on them to thrive.

Here are two projects that are really making a splash for two of our most at risk wetland birds.

UK’s tallest bird smashes another record

Crane numbers have hit record levels, after they become extinct in the UK nearly 400 years ago. The 2020 common crane survey reveals there are now a fantastic 64 pairs of UK cranes, bringing the total population to an estimated 200 birds.

Photo: Recently released young crane on Somerset Levels. Credit: Nick Upton (rspb-images.com)

In 1979, a small number of wild cranes returned to Norfolk and since then conservation groups have been working together to encourage more and more of these birds to make the UK their home.  They have now spread to other areas of the UK, benefitting from improved wetland homes, such as RSPB’s Lakenheath, Nene Washes, West Sedgemoor reserves, and Natural England’s Humberhead Peatlands.

In 2010 the Great Crane Project launched – a partnership between the RSPB, Wildfowel and Wetland Trust (WWT), and the Pensthorpe Conservation Trust. And funded by Viridor Credits Environmental Company. Together we began creating and improving existing wetlands, and hand-rearing young birds for release on the Somerset Levels and Moors.

Photo: Ditch at RSPB West Sedgemoor reserve, Somerset. Photo Credit: David Kjaer (rspb-images.com)

All the conservation effort on peatland restoration and wetland protection has not only resulted in 64 crane pairs across the UK last year, but also 23 chicks in 2020, giving us great hope for the future of this majestic bird.

Speaking about the project, Damon Bridge, Chair of the UK Crane Working Group said: “The return of cranes to the British landscape shows just how resilient nature can be when given the chance. If we want to see this success continue then the special wetland sites that cranes use and need must get adequate protection."

Project Godwit – fighting near extinction for a second time.

The UK is home to around 60 breeding pairs of black-tailed godwits, yet sadly these large wading birds are likely to be threatened with extinction if we don’t act to save them now. In the 19th century they became extinct as regular UK breeding birds, probably due to the draining of their wetland homes and hunting.

Photo: Black-tailed godwit in flight. Credit: Alick Simmons, projectgodwit.org.uk

Project Godwit is a partnership between RSPB and WWT, with funding from the EU LIFE Nature Programme, which is helping to protect these nesting birds by monitoring their migration, and creating new and improved wetland homes for them.

The big three needs for black-tailed godwits:

  1. Moist soils to search for tasty invertebrates.
  2. Vegetation of the right structure to build their nests.
  3. Areas of taller vegetation where chicks can safely hunt for food.

We’re increasing the number of wet features (such as scrapes) at RSPB Nene and Ouse Washes. These features help the fields to maintain their wetness throughout the breeding season and provide areas for birds to feed. We’re also taking steps to limit the impact of predation on the breeding success of black-tailed godwits.

Photo: RSPB Nene Washes Reserve. Credit: Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

So far, our joint efforts are paying off, last year we recorded 49 breeding pairs of black-tailed godwits at the three project sites in the East Anglian Fens. This is an increase from 45 pairs in 2019. Of these 49 pairs, 32 pairs bred at RSPB Nene Washes, 10 pairs at WWT Welney (on the Lady Fen complex and the Ouse Washes) and 7 pairs at the RSPB’s Pilot Project site (next to RSPB Ouse Washes).

You can find out more about Project Godwit here

Our UK wetlands are vitally important for people, our climate, and our precious wildlife, so it’s essential that we celebrate them and work together to both protect them, and to ensure they thrive long into the future. You can find out more about our wetland work here.

Photo: RSPB Ouse Washes reserve, reeds on riverbank. Credit: Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

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