Owen Selly, Conservation Officer for RSPB Scotland covering Loch Lomond, The Trossachs and Tayside tells us about the work farmers in Angus are doing to help our precious wading birds.

It’s a stunning May evening as I sit not in a field or on a hill, but at my laptop, meeting with farmers and other conservationists to discuss our collective progress in a trial initiative by the Working for Waders partnership to help us understand what is happening to wading birds nests across Scotland. The farmers are given trail cameras to monitor nests on their land and submit the results as part of a Scotland-wide citizen science effort. As one of the farmers joins the meeting we are greeted not with a familiar face, but with a clutch of four perfectly mottled eggs in a shallow, grassy depression. Yet another curlew nest has been found in the silage fields used to feed their cattle and this time, live on Zoom!

But why are we involved with this? Wading birds have become one of the UK’s top conservation priorities. And here in Scotland, farmland and the hills of the upland areas support a disproportionate share of the global population for species such as curlews, lapwings and oystercatchers relative to the land area. These species have declined alarmingly over the last 50 years and it is by working together - be it on Zoom or out in the fields - that we can attempt to collectively reverse those trends.

Action in Angus

I'm fortunate to work for RSPB Scotland in Angus in north-east Scotland. It’s not only a spectacular part of the country, but also a place where a group of farmers are rallying together to attempt to change the fortunes of some of our most precious birds on their land.

                                                                                                                                                                                                            Aylwin Pillai, Farmers in Angus gather to talk about their work to help struggling wader species such as curlew and lapwing. 

We have been working with farmers in Angus for almost two years now and enthusiasm for wading birds is in abundance across the area. Our partnership working initially began at Kinclune where the farm’s habitat creation for wading birds and keeping tabs on the fortune of their wader nests, through cameras, contributed to them winning Nature of Scotland Food and Farming Award in recognition of this work.

Nearby farms, many of whom had already been working to help wading birds, took notice and a flourishing community has quickly formed with wading birds at the heart. Eight farms in West Angus and into neighbouring Perth & Kinross have pooled their expertise and knowledge of wading birds to apply for government funding through the Agri Environment and Climate Scheme (AECS). We have assisted the farms by conducting breeding wading bird surveys and producing a collaborative wading birds management plan to support all of the applications. But the real knowledge comes from the farms themselves; the people who have lived and worked alongside wading birds on their land for generations.

By collaborating across landholdings we are aiming to help wading birds across a much larger area than any single farm could manage individually. Collectively, over 300 hectares of land with proposed wader-friendly options such as grassland management and wetland creation was submitted in the AECS applications.

Looking to the future

The Scottish Government is also currently working on the future of Scottish Agriculture policy post-EU, the content of which will have implications for many of Scotland’s species that rely on farming & crofting with nature. Also, the Scottish Government’s commitment to AECS funding until 2024 is welcome and much needed, but beyond this date, Scottish agricultural support must be transformed  to allow more landowners to farm in a nature and climate friendly way. Wading birds are a vital piece of the jigsaw.

A curlew benefits from a new scrape on a farm in Angus that will provide feeding opportunities for these birds through the breeding season.

Of course, we hope this is just the beginning in this corner of Scotland and right now it feels exciting. Farmers across Scotland have shown that they have the drive and the expertise to make a real difference for wading birds. And if organisations like the RSPB can continue to bring farmers and land managers together in areas such as Strathspey, the Clyde Valley, Shetland and here in Angus to take a landscape-scale approach to attempting to save some of our most special birds, then that’s certainly time well spent. With partnerships such as Working for Waders and the Nature Friendly Farming Network demonstrating the importance of working together for the benefit of wading birds, it does feel like momentum is being generated right now. The wading birds need that momentum to continue.

Main image: A curlew nest in an Angus sileage field. Under the stewardship of this farm, there’s a better chance these eggs will become the next generation.  Virginia Antolovi

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