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Drought scuppers hopes for wetland birds


Once common wading birds in south-east England look set to be amongst the casualties of this year’s drought.

Numbers of successful breeding lapwing, redshank and snipe have dropped by up to 80 per cent at five RSPB reserves in Sussex and Kent. At Brading Marshes, an RSPB reserve on the Isle of Wight, low spring and summer rainfall has left land parched. Redshanks have gone completely while just one pair of lapwing remains.

The news comes just a week after Southern Water extended its hosepipe and sprinkler ban across most of Sussex. Last winter was the second driest since 1904 in the south-east and rainfall in each of the last eight months has been well below average.

Phil Burston, Senior Water Policy Officer at the RSPB said: “Some of the birds affected are already just clinging on in the areas where water shortages are most severe. If we do not cut our water consumption, drought orders will be imposed and these birds will suffer even more.

“The south-east is undoubtedly drying up. To save our wetlands, our wildlife and the livelihoods that depend on them, we must stop wasting so much water in our homes and gardens, build houses to the highest water efficiency standards and force water companies to immediately address their shameful rate of water leakage. Failure to do this will see our wetlands ruined and billions of pounds squandered on unnecessary new reservoirs and desalination plants.”

Wading birds need boggy grassland or damp meadows in which to nest and find their insect food.

Their numbers have tumbled in the last 25 years, particularly in lowland areas. The most recent survey (Breeding waders and wet meadows 1982-2002) found that in south-east England snipe numbers were down 96 per cent to just ten pairs, lapwing down 61 per cent and redshank down 42 per cent.

Numbers of both lapwing and redshank had begun to recover on RSPB reserves because of high quality wetland management. But winter and spring drought this year has left even those sites much dryer, reversing recent successes.

Drought in North Kent could also affect waders for several years to come. Cracks will develop in arid land and another dry winter will prevent the regeneration of suitable breeding habitats for next spring. “It’s a disaster waiting to happen,” said Alan Johnson, Site Manager of seven RSPB reserves in North Kent. “If we get too little winter rain the cracks will not close and what rain there is will just seep through instead of staying on the surface and creating the boggy sites that waders need.”

The RSPB believes the construction of thousands of new homes in the UK’s driest areas, and the subsequent demand for water, could seriously damage hopes of saving the south-east’s breeding waders.

Phil Burston said: “We have all become profligate with our water use yet could annually save ten billion litres of water, and our wetland wildlife, if these new homes were built to the highest water efficiency standards and if existing properties had water-saving devices installed.

“It would be a tragedy if we were to lose these birds just as they are beginning to return. Climate change and water shortages pose a very real threat but action now by government, house builders and water customers could save our beautiful wetland heritage, the charismatic wildlife that depends on it, and reduce thousands of annual water bills at the same time.”

Site by site:

Northward Hill, Kent, and Hoo Peninsula
Numbers of lapwing at Northward Hill RSPB Reserve have dropped by 80 per cent from 31 breeding pairs to six this year. Redshanks are also disappearing, their numbers down from 34 pairs to 11. Across the 5,000-hectare Hoo Peninsula in North Kent, which includes three wet grassland RSPB sites, just 60 of the 169 breeding lapwing pairs are left.

Pulborough Brooks, West Sussex
At Pulborough Brooks RSPB Reserve in the Arun Valley, close to the half-full Weir Wood reservoir, just one pair of lapwings has produced chicks compared to ten pairs in a normal year. Usually, at least six redshank pairs breed; this year just one has been successful.

“Our biggest worry is that the areas waders use are shrinking,” said Pete Hughes, Warden at Pulborough. “Declines may be less obvious here but as the flood plain dries out there are fewer and fewer places where they can nest. We are desperately trying to keep a few areas wet which means waders are more vulnerable because they are being forced into just one or two places.”

Brading Marshes, Isle of Wight
The picture is the same at Brading Marshes RSPB Reserve. “This has been a disastrous year for breeding waders,” Warden Keith Ballard said. “The water table is metres below the optimum. If we had had the expected rain earlier this year we would undoubtedly be attracting many more waders including snipe.”

Cath Harris | alfa
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