Why won't the RSPB do what's needed to help breeding waders?
A recent announcement from the RSPB praised the work achieved at their nature reserve in Saltholme, near Stockton-on-Tees.
The reserve has, according to the bird charity, seen a ‘bumper season’ for breeding waders, with the numbers of fledged Avocet and Northern Lapwing chicks increasing significantly in 2022. Lapwing numbers, in particular, almost doubled, the RSPB claimed.
If wader numbers are increasing, this is of course good news. But the strange thing for us is what they credit for making this such a successful breeding season. The previous year (Autumn 2021), the RSPB installed a 4.5km anti-predator fence, which encloses an area of wet grassland. The intention is to stop ground-based predators such as foxes from taking chicks or eggs; and according to the RSPB figures, it has had some success.
For our part, we are glad that the RSPB has, for once, recognised the negative impact that predators have on ground-nesting birds. Despite the fact that the evidence shows that the one issue that has the largest impact on the fate of ground-nesting birds is predator management, the RSPB tend to be loathe to mention predation impacts. This, then, is a welcome change. A GWCT experiment in the uplands, for example, predicted that predation control can nearly double curlew numbers in five years. Without it, they are facing local extinctions.
But it is frustrating that the RSPB’s attempts at predator control (or perhaps predator restriction) consist of a fence. A fence will, of course, only prevent land-based predators from accessing the nests. Aerial predators are still free to bombard the waders from above, so crows and other corvids are welcome to predate on the lapwing chicks.
Secondly, fences are problematic because although they might stop foxes, badgers and other mustelids from accessing these nests, they don’t actually address the problem of predation. These specific lapwings and avocets might be safe; but what about the ones that have chosen to nest in the field next door, outside the ‘safety’ of the iron ring of the RSPB?
What the fence does is simply push predation onto other creatures which, though it might help the RSPB’s own statistics, doesn’t exactly help the wider bird population.
Another wader, the Curlew, has seen a drastic decline in numbers, both in the UK and internationally. In the south of England it has been largely eradicated, but in the uplands it is doing well in some areas; notably, on or adjacent to well-keepered grouse moors, where habitat management and legal predator control enable the birds to breed successfully. A new head-starting project has even seen Curlew eggs taken under licence from moorland estates, where they are thriving, to be relocated in Peppering, in the South Downs of Sussex.
The estate has a history of successfully restoring bird life, with grey partridge numbers increasing from just 11 in 2003 to over 2,000 by 2014. Other ground-nesting birds, such as lapwing and skylark, have also undergoing dramatic population increases. Interestingly, they highlight that as well as providing sufficient habitat and food for the birds, other factors are in their success have included controlling nest predators, providing nesting cover, and also more protection from birds of prey – through umbrella-like cover of kale or thorns.
The Otterburn Study was published in 2010, and demonstrated that where efficient predator control by trained gamekeepers took place, waders bred successfully and increased in breeding density. But in places where the RSPB have attempted to trial predator control, such as in the Peak District, they had to stop due to attacks from animal rights organisations, including an attack on RSPB on social media.
The RSPB know that legal, targeted predator control is the best way to preserve ground-nesting bird species and allow them to breed successfully. Not just shooting foxes, but the use of legal, humane traps to control smaller predators (rats, stoats, weasels, squirrels), and snares to catch foxes. But they refuse to even accept this, let alone put it into practice. What hope do the birds of Britain have?