Godwits are in trouble, but your help could secure them a better future
There are two subspecies of Blacktailed Godwit in the UK, and one of them is in real trouble. The birds you’re likely to see in winter are of the islandica race, which stay here or drop in on passage, and we can get large flocks on the coast, and at the Nene and Ouse Washes (Cambs/norfolk). Most of these breed in Iceland, but a small number nest regularly in Orkney and Shetland. The nominate limosa subspecies, nests here in small numbers, around 50 pairs. There are other populations of this subspecies in the Netherlands, France and Germany. In the winter, they fly south to Portugal, Spain and West Africa. If you’ve been birding in China or Russia, you may have seen a third subspecies, melanuroides. At the beginning of the 19th Century, breeding Black-tailed Godwits declined in the UK to the point where they were extinct as regular breeders. The most likely causes for this were hunting and drainage of wetlands. Over a century later, the limosa subspecies began breeding here once more and birds have since settled around the Nene and Ouse Washes. Numbers peaked at around 65 pairs in the 1970s, but have since fallen. Because of a declining population, Black-tailed Godwits are Red listed in the UK.
The main reasons for this more recent decline are believed to be flooding, and predation. The Nene and Ouse populations, where the godwits nest in damp, grassy areas, are particularly vulnerable to flooding. With an increase in frequency of spring floods they are at greater risk than ever. The godwits’ initial stronghold was at the Ouse Washes, but as flooding became an issue, more moved to the Nene. These floods have been linked to climate change, along with changes in weather and land use. Predation, particularly by Foxes, is an extra pressure driving the godwits’ decline. This is likely to have worsened over time as predatory mammal populations have increased. At the same time, wetlands have become fragmented, giving mammals easy access to these important habitats.
Project Godwit, a partnership between the RSPB and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) began in August 2016, aiming to help this fragile population recover. The project will run for five years, with major funding from the EU LIFE Nature Programme, the HSBC 150th Anniversary fund, Natural England and the Heritage Lottery Fund, through the Back from the Brink Programme. Hannah Ward, who manages the project said: “Our breeding godwits are in trouble, but the wonderful thing about this partnership is that we’re able to draw on the expertise of staff and volunteers across our two organisations. We are practically neighbours in the Fens, with our reserves, the Nene Washes and Ouse Washes, and WWT’S Welney, all fairly close together.”
Science and technology
The Project Godwit team are using the latest technology in this pioneering project. Firstly, they monitor nests throughout the breeding season. This includes fitting each located nest with a small device that can record temperature, telling researchers when the eggs are being incubated, and so when nests may get predated. Nest cameras are also deployed in some nests so that if eggs are lost, Project Godwit can identify the cause. Researchers also monitor the presence of mammals on the nesting site using trail cameras and ink tunnels, which can capture the footprints of animals such as voles and Stoats.
Before anything else can be done, it is crucial for Project Godwit to make sure there are areas for the birds to nest which are outside the ‘flood risk’ zones. The next step is to give the godwits a helping hand by increasing their numbers. Black-tailed Godwits produce four eggs a year, but life on the wetlands of East Anglia is tough and, in some years, very few even make it to fledging. Using a technique called ‘headstarting’, Project Godwit remove batches of eggs (under a licence from Natural England) to rear the chicks in captivity. These birds are then released into the wild.
Godwit chicks in early stage rearing
A godwit nest