Drier countryside threatens future of wetland birds

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Populations of British wetland birds such as lapwing, redshank and snipe have declined seriously over the past 20 years because the landscape has become drier.

Populations of British wetland birds such as lapwing, redshank and snipe have declined seriously over the past 20 years because the landscape has become drier.

Snipe are in danger of disappearing from parts of England and Wales, a survey by the British Trust for Ornithology reveals. Once common in the flood meadows of lowland river valleys, it is now only likely to be found breeding in a few nature reserves.

The Breeding Waders of Wet Meadows survey shows that, since 1982, 60 per cent of snipe, 40 per cent of lapwing and curlew and 20 per cent of redshank have disappeared. The report says the three species of wading bird only thrive when their habitats are managed for wildlife. Six sites that are nature reserves or are managed for wildlife harbour half of the population of the three species.

The trust said half of the sites visited had no breeding waders. Snipe is particularly at risk: in the West Midlands only four were recorded from 106 sites.

Phil Rothwell, head of countryside policy at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, said: "Seeing lapwing, snipe and redshank in spring should be a familiar part of the countryside and it is a tragedy that once-widespread birds are now largely confined to the oases of nature reserves within the desert of the wider countryside.

"Once common and wide-spread, these charismatic species are no longer familiar to all. To halt further declines we need urgent action through a range of government-backed measures, such as more funding for wildlife-friendly farming and measures to restore wetland areas to our countryside.''

The RSPB said that mead-ows bordering rivers were being grazed more intensively, which destroyed grassy hummocks where wading birds nested, or used to grow crops.

The Great Ouse river had lost almost all of its potential breeding areas for waders in Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire because of intensive cereal growing. But nearer the coast, the birds were thriving in the Ouse Washes area.

The other managed sites are the Lower Derwent valley in East and North Yorkshire, the Nene Washes in Cambridgeshire, the Norfolk Broads, the Somerset Levels and the North Kent marshes, an area threatened by plans for an international airport.

FALLING FAST

LAPWING

Known also as the peewit, it is found on farmland where it feeds on crops.

SNIPE

Tail feather produces distinctive 'whirring' sound in flight. Feeds on small invertebrates.

REDSHANK

Feeds on insects and crustacea. Found on lake fringes, wet meadows and marshlands, particularly in coastal areas.

CURLEW

Ringing 'cour-li' call, Europe's largest wading bird favours mud-flats, estuaries and wetlands.

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