Farmers can be key to survival of wading birds

Oystercatchers are among the wading species that have seen a steep decline in population
Oystercatchers are among the wading species that have seen a steep decline in population

I am co-chairman of the Working for Waders initiative.

This is a Scotland-wide programme to raise awareness of the severe declines we have seen in wading birds – such as curlews, lapwings and oystercatchers – over the past 25 years.

Just as importantly, the initiative is also helping to highlight how these declines – driven by the low number of chicks surviving during the breeding season – can be reversed.

All land managers have a role to play in this process.

But there are a range of specific actions that farmers and crofters can do to help improve chick survival during the April to June breeding season.

In fields where waders are nesting, this could simply involve reducing grazing pressure to prevent trampling of the eggs or chicks by livestock or not rolling the fields until the end of June.

Waders and their chicks need to be able to probe in wet areas to find soil-dwelling insects and earthworms to eat.

Not draining the wetter areas of one or two fields – or even just smoothing out the sides of steep ditches – can help increase such feeding opportunities.

Some actions can even be win-wins, as they benefit both agricultural productivity and the waders.

For example, applying lime to improve soil pH can increase the abundance of invertebrates the birds prey upon.

And, outwith the breeding season, cutting rushes provides the birds with access to those invertebrates across a greater area in any one field.

Such management will certainly help.

But in the vast majority of cases, it will also need to be complemented by actions to reduce the predation pressures from foxes and crows.

On hill farms in particular, this will also produce some positive knock-on effects for livestock productivity.

Last week I helped run a Working for Waders workshop, in which we showcased a range of examples from across Scotland where such actions have been shown to help increase wader numbers on farms.

All involved farmers and crofters who were working in collaboration with agricultural and conservation advisors.

They also helped highlight how some small changes on any individual farm or croft can actually make a big difference for waders on the ground.

But more still needs to be done.

The partners in the Working for Waders Initiative are therefore keen to identify additional groups of farmers or crofters willing to undertake collaborative management to increase wader numbers across their farms and crofts.

SRUC’s Professor Davy McCracken