Drought threatens disaster for wetland birds

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Drought is hitting wetland birds harder than ever before, with waders in south-east England facing their worst-ever breeding season.

Species such as lapwing, redshank and snipe, all in decline in England's lowlands, are scouring near parched wetlands for remnants of pools and marshes where they can nest and bring up young. Phil Burston, a senior officer at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds RSPB, said: " Drought in the South-east is severely affecting some of our finest wetland sites. It is putting intense pressure on an already stressed environment."

"Relief can only come if we reduce the amount of water we use in our homes and reform the unsustainable way we manage our water. The time to act is now because the situation has become desperate."

The RSPB said drought had left wildlife at reserves in Kent and Sussex facing a bleak spring and summer. Worst affected was one of the most important reserves for breeding waders in the south-east, Elmley Marshes on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent.

Elmley usually hosts more than 200 pairs of lapwing but last year, the driest on record, just 65 pairs bred successfully. The winter has brought little relief, and Barry O'Dowd, the reserve warden, said: "The prospects for the spring are bleak ­ what should be a sparkling water-filled oasis is dry and barren."

Water levels at the RSPB's Rainham Marshes reserve east of London are almost as low as they were last summer. Nick Bruce-White, the manager said: " We will be in dire straits if we don't get lots of rain soon. Rainham is an important site for breeding waders but each year the situation gets worse. If we had enough water we could increase their numbers by 100 or 200 per cent."

Pool and spring water is also drying up at Pulborough Brooks in West Sussex. Pete Hughes, a warden, said: "Some birds may not be in good enough condition to lay eggs now because the site is too dry. The edges of pools are the only places where adult birds bring their young to feed, and hungry chicks could take twice as long to fledge, and so be vulnerable for twice as long. We can't prove that chicks starved last year but it was obvious that there were very few around. The same is likely to happen again."

Also badly hit is the Northward Hill reserve in north Kent where prospects for breeding waders look doomed. Alan Johnson, reserve manager, said: " We are creating pools with what water we have but as soon as there is a dry, breezy day it rips all the water off.

"Lapwing numbers halved last year and they could be close to zero this summer. Even if it rains for the next two weeks it is definitely too late for birds to breed in any number."

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