Monday, 18 June 2007

Washout for breeding waders on the Ouse Washes

Floods over the meadows of the Ouse Washes in Cambridgeshire and Norfolk have wiped out this year’s nesting season for wading birds. The RSPB anticipates that some 1,000 pairs of ground-nesting waders have lost their eggs or recently hatched chicks across the Ouse Washes, mostly on its nature reserve in Cambridgeshire.

The wet weather – which included 47 mm of rain falling in just four days – put the whole of the 19-mile Ouse Washes under water. This internationally important wetland remains flooded, with no prospect of a nesting season for most birds this year as the wet weather continues.

There is a glimmer of hope for some breeding waders in the area. Newly created wet meadows at Manea have attracted 19 pairs of waders, namely nine pairs of Northern Lapwing, seven pairs of Redshank and five pairs of Common Snipe. This 44-hectare ‘pilot’ area demonstrates the feasibility of creating much larger areas of new wetland close to the Ouse Washes.

The problem of spring flooding on the Ouse Washes is one of the region’s biggest environmental challenges, says the RSPB. Conservation organisations have been working with the Environment Agency for many years to find a solution to this problem, and fresh hope has recently emerged for a satisfactory solution.

In March 2005, Elliot Morley, then a DEFRA Minister, announced the Government’s commitment to fix the deterioration of the Ouse Washes Special Protection Area. To fulfil obligations under EU Directives, the Government agreed to fund the purchase of land for habitat creation outside the Ouse Washes to provide alternative homes for these birds.

The Environment Agency is now leading this habitat creation protect, which will enable it to continue to operate the site as a washland, protecting people and property. The RSPB is providing help and support to this project to ensure new areas of wetland are established without undue delay.

Pat Sones, the Environment Agency’s Ouse Washes Habitat Creation Project Officer, said: “Put simply, spring flooding is bad for the birds of the Ouse Washes. The Environment Agency fully recognises this problem and we’re working hard both to acquire land to create new habitat safe from flooding for these important bird populations. The Agency is planning engineering improvements to rivers in and near to the Ouse Washes to improve flood management and help wildlife.”

Graham Elliott, Fens Area Manager for the RSPB, said: “Cambridgeshire is by far England’s most important county for wading birds nesting on wet meadows – nearly all the Black-tailed Godwits and well over a half of England’s nesting Common Snipe. The new wet meadows at Manea have worked just as we hoped they would but clearly birds from 2,000 hectares cannot pack into an area less than one fiftieth the size of the Ouse Washes.”

He continued: “This year’s floods show how important it is to create large areas of new wet meadows for breeding waders near to the Ouse Washes as soon as possible. We have learnt valuable lessons in creating new meadows at Manea and are happy to share our experience in supporting the Environment Agency with its habitat creation project. We’ll continue to work with the Agency to prevent further deterioration of the Ouse Washes itself.”

Floods in the nesting season have been the main cause for the collapse in the Ouse Washes breeding population of godwits, one of the UK’s rarest breeding waders. In 1972, there were 65 pairs breeding on the Ouse Washes; this year there were just four pairs, and these will now have lost their nests.

Photo: drumming Common Snipe by Steve Young