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God­wits are in trou­ble, but your help could se­cure them a bet­ter fu­ture

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents -

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.

God­wit threats

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.

The project

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.

Boost­ing num­bers

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

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