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Where have all the waders gone?

24th November 2014

A study published in the Welsh Ornithological Society’s journal Birds in Wales, highlights the fragility of some bird populations on the Berwyn Special Protection Area (SPA) in North Wales and identifies the tragic loss of lapwing from the sample plots as well as a massive reduction of other important waders such as golden plover and curlew.

The study, which cites the loss of driven grouse shooting as being a possible reason behind these declines, together with afforestation, changes in upland farming and climate change, identifies that a reduction in vital moorland management for red grouse has been associated with changes in numbers of upland birds.

The analysis carried out by researchers from the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), used data from previous surveys conducted by the Nature Conservancy in the early 1980s and a repeat survey of the same plots by the RSPB-led Repeat Upland Bird Survey in 2002. These data were kindly provided under licence by the Countryside Council for Wales, now Natural Resources Wales. The study area is designated a Special Area for Conservation (SAC) for having the most extensive blanket bog and heath in Wales and is designated a Special Protection Area (SPA) for its internationally significant numbers of hen harrier, merlin, peregrine and red kite.

In 1994, there were 10 active grouse moors in Berwyn but following the loss of driven grouse shooting in the late 1990s, surveys revealed that lapwing had disappeared from sample plots; golden plover had declined by 90% while curlew had declined by 79%. Even numbers of hen harrier suffered a decline of 49% since management for red grouse was abandoned.

Driven grouse shooting ceased in the 1990s because there were too few grouse to shoot sustainably. Since then, GWCT counts show that numbers have declined further so that now most moors do not shoot grouse at all. Red grouse are now red-listed as critically endangered in Wales as a whole, with a rapid decline in range and abundance. A similar picture is found for black grouse which in this study had declined by 78%.Publications

This situation contrasts sharply with the status of upland birds in northern England where over an equivalent period densities of red grouse have increased significantly whilst in the North York Moors a recent study by the National Park suggests that waders on moors managed for grouse shooting are now at their highest level for 18 years.

A previous study by RSPB identified that densities of breeding waders on grouse moors in northern England and north-east Scotland were three to five-fold greater on managed moors for red grouse than on similar moorland without gamekeepers. The likely cause of this difference has been demonstrated in Northumberland, where a 9-year scientific study conducted by GWCT revealed that when generalist predators such as foxes and crows were removed this resulted in a three-fold increase in breeding success of waders and grouse and a subsequent increase in numbers of breeding pairs.

However, there is light on the horizon in Wales and on the Ruabon Moor in North Wales, where a full-time gamekeeper is employed and the moor has been the subject of extensive habitat management by the estate, RSPB and Natural Resources Wales, black grouse numbers have shown an approximate ten-fold increase with an estimated population of 200 males in spring. The site is also seeing a recovery of red grouse numbers and a small, but encouraging, increase in breeding curlew and golden plover.

Dr Philip Warren, senior scientist with the GWCT and lead author of the study said, “Waders have undergone a precipitous decline, but to prevent further declines, and even extinctions, urgent conservation management is needed. The very useful demonstration of how predator control and habitat management integrate through partnership working on Ruabon Moor is a key step forward.

“To this end, two projects; one involving GWCT working jointly with CLA Cumru, and the other proposed by RSPB have received funds from Welsh Government under their Nature Fund. The former project will work with moor owners to reinstate predator control and both projects will support further management to restore moorland habitats thereby building more widely on the initial successes at Ruabon. With this renewed impetus and encouragement, Wales could again see thriving populations of these wonderful birds and once again hear the evocative call of the curlew or the once familiar peewit display call of the lapwing.”

Dr Siân Whitehead, Terrestrial and Freshwater Ornithologist from Natural Resources Wales said, “The wader declines observed in this study reflect wider population declines being seen throughout Wales. This study, and observations from nearby Ruabon, emphasise the need for us all to work together to deliver sustainable moorland management which can balance the needs of our wild bird populations, the habitats that they depend on, and management of other resources that our uplands can provide.”

The Berwyn study by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust was funded by the Moorland Association and its director, Amanda Anderson said, “This study does reflect the urgent need to learn important lessons from the management and investment being carried out on our members’ moors in northern England. Grouse shooting is the key driver for managing these important habitats and is helping these moors buck the national trend in terms of supporting significant numbers of waders, as well as other priority birds and habitats.” Publications

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Did You Know?

75% of of the world’s remaining heather moorland is found in Britain – but this area declined alarmingly over the latter part of the last century. The Moorland Association was set up in 1986 to coordinate the efforts of moorland owners and managers to halt this loss, particularly in England and Wales.

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