Farmland waders - Populations in peril

Rebekah Strong ,
12 Feb 2019

A once common sight across Scottish farmland, breeding waders have declined in recent decades, not only in Scotland but across the UK and North-West Europe. These declines are primarily due to agricultural improvement of their favoured wet grassland habitats, involving drainage, fertilisation of grass swards and increases in livestock densities. As numbers have declined, evidence suggests species have become more vulnerable to predation. This means iconic birds are becoming more and more scarce, with some species now listed as priority species in the Biodiversity Action Plan. 

In Scotland Lapwing and Oystercatcher nest on both arable and grassland fields, while Curlew, Redshank and Snipe are restricted to grassland and moorland. Although their habitat requirements differ slightly, broadly similar measures will benefit Lapwing, Curlew, and Oystercatcher. Redshanks are a little more demanding, generally requiring some standing water throughout the breeding season. Snipe require more densely vegetated wetlands than the other species, but all five species can be found on the same sites if there is enough variety of habitats.

Statistics by Scottish Natural Heritage published last year show that the numbers of all species except Snipe have declined. Snipe prefer boggy areas where they use their long straight beak to collect worms and fly larvae under the moist soil surface. Peatland restoration projects like that in Flow Country have helped significantly improve Snipe numbers. 

The outlook is not so positive for Curlew and the other species, with continued declines across Scotland. These birds nest on the ground in relatively dry habitat compared to Snipe, making them particularly vulnerable to predation.  

In order to halt and reverse the decline of farmland waders, farm management should aim to deliver the following during the April-June breeding season:

  • High quality feeding habitat
  • Suitable nesting habitat
  • Low predation pressure

To try to prevent these birds disappearing from Scottish farmland initiatives have been set up, bringing together farmers, NGOs and academics. One such project is Strathspey wetlands and waders initiative, a collaboration between RSPB, SRUC, Cairngorms National Park and landowners to improve the waders population in an area that had seen severe decline. These projects demonstrate the passion that farmers and land managers have for nature and their commendable approach as custodians of Scotland’s greatest asset. A number of positive steps have been made and the Working for Waders initiative is promoting further work throughout Scotland. 

To continue to keep a close eye on the population of birds on UK farmland, the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) is asking farmers and gamekeepers to record birds seen on their land. Information gathered from the Big Farmland Bird Count is essential in helping to understand how successful existing efforts to save farmland birds are being and where further effort is needed. 

Taking part is easy! On a day between 8th and 17th February, spend about 30 minutes recording the species and number of birds seen on one particular area of the farm and submit your results online. 

For further information & to get involved click here

Big Farmland Bird Count