Duncan Orr-Ewing, Head of Species and Land Management for RSPB Scotland tell us about what more needs to be done to support farmers to help wading birds, while still managing their land in a productive way.

Scotland’s breeding wading birds are much loved, however their populations are in serious trouble. The causes of these declines are well established to be habitat loss, including drainage of wet areas; the loss of mixed farming practices; the planting of commercial forestry on good wading bird habitats; the destruction of nests by field operations; and predation from generalist predators such as foxes and crows.      

Scotland has nationally, and in some cases internationally, important populations of breeding wading birds such as oystercatchers, redshanks, lapwings, curlews and snipe. These birds often breed on farmland, and in contrast to other parts of the UK where their breeding populations have crashed, they are still widespread - but often thinly spread now across the landscape.

The most recent British Trust for Ornithology Breeding Bird Survey Report covering Scotland indicates that between 1995-2018 our oystercatcher population underwent a 39% population decline, and for lapwings and curlews the population declines are 56% and 59% respectively. Only  snipe appears to be bucking the trend with a 22% population increase over the same period.

Across Scotland, many farmers are now joining in with attempts to improve the conservation prospects of our breeding wading birds. The Nature Friendly Farming Network is growing in strength. The Working for Waders initiative led by NatureScot, and involving a wide range of partners, is also helping spread the word about wader conservation; funding helpful conservation projects; and mapping breeding wading bird hotspots to better inform conservation action. In the future though, we need to think bigger and operate at a landscape scale, if we are going to help the conservation prospects for breeding wading bird species, especially curlews. In short, many more farmers and land managers need to get involved!

A curlew in a grassy field

Curlew  Andy Hay

In the 1990s, RSPB Scotland identified a number of breeding wading bird hotspot sites across Scotland and we have often focussed our conservation efforts on these areas. One such area is in Perthshire. On Monday 11 April, I dropped my daughter off at her work at a local hotel, and then went for an early evening stroll along the river. I was very surprised to see a tractor ploughing an area which as far as I can remember has not been ploughed for at least a decade. Mistaking my binoculars for a camera, the tractor driver stopped, and we then had a friendly conversation. He advised that the land had been bought over by a local dairy farmer and the intention was to turn the grazing land over to fodder turnips for the cattle. As I then walked further, I saw that all of the wetlands in the field had either been filled in or drained., The tell-tale sign of black flexipipe was visible indicating that field drainage had been installed. Piles of farmyard manure and artificial fertiliser stood in heaps waiting to be spread.  Areas of previous old rigs and furrows across a normally wet field had been ploughed, as well as nearly every cultivatable area even right up to the banks of the river. On my way back I stopped and had a further conversation with the tractor driver and expressed my thoughts that whilst the proposed planting of fodder crops can have some benefits for breeding wading, and other, birds, the drainage of the wetlands, important at this site for breeding redshanks and other threatened waders mentioned earlier, was likely to be very negative. I also expressed my concern that the ploughing was taking place right up to the edge of the river, which can flood in winter across this area. I also told him about the large sand martin colony in the riverbanks which are exposed each year following winter floods, and indeed a couple of early sand martins just arrived back from Africa were already prospecting.   The tractor driver advised that he would pass on my observations to his boss. Whilst all of what I describe is probably entirely legal, it occurred to me that much more still needs to be done to give more farmers the funding, resources and knowledge needed to support wading bird conservation. In this case, was the new owner aware of the importance of this piece of land for conservation, before significant steps such as installing field drainage were taken to improve the land for production? The Scottish Government has announced “a climate and nature emergency”, yet offers no support or incentive to find alternative methods to improve productivity. It certainly seems a long way from Scottish Government’s vision of being a global leader in sustainable and regenerative farming where the industry farms with and not against nature. Surely this absolutely has to be addressed within the Agriculture Bill consultation later this year?

Finally, other helpful measures that farmers and land managers can take, and many already are, to improve the conservation prospects of breeding wading birds on Scottish farmland include; avoiding the practice of rolling fields in April to July; the retention of wet landscape features; and taking action to reduce stocking densities in April to July in fields used by breeding wading birds to avoid trampling of nests. You can find more information on how to help waders from the The RSPB, Farm Advisory Service and Working for Waders websites. Farmers could also consider getting involved the British Trust for Ornithology Wader Calendar, which should assist in getting a better understanding of which wading bird species are likely to be nesting on their farms and to contribute to a national monitoring scheme.      

Main image: a redshank on a fence post  Graham Goodall