For the flood victims with feathers - a £14m government nest egg to build new homes

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The Independent Online

They've been flooded out of house and home and now the Government is to spend millions rehousing them. But they're birds, not people. They are the black-tailed godwits that nest on the Ouse Washes in Cambridgeshire - wading birds that are as rare as they are stunningly beautiful.

They've been flooded out of house and home and now the Government is to spend millions rehousing them. But they're birds, not people. They are the black-tailed godwits that nest on the Ouse Washes in Cambridgeshire - wading birds that are as rare as they are stunningly beautiful.

Increased summer flooding of their nesting grounds, at the heart of one of the biggest drainage schemes in the Fens, has brought them to the brink of extinction. So now the Government - acting under obligations from EU law - is funding the purchase of land where they can find alternative nesting sites.

It is to make up to £14m available over the next five years to buy large areas of farmland, which can be converted back into the wet grassland which is the natural breeding habitat for the godwits, and for other wading birds such as snipe, redshanks and lapwings. "This is one of the most important habitats in the UK for both summer and winter birds, and its importance is international," said Elliot Morley, the Environment minister.

The grant is thought to be the biggest yet made in connection with the obligations Britain has under two powerful pieces of European law - the Birds Directive and the Habitats Directive - to provide alternatives when EU-protected wildlife sites are damaged or destroyed.

The Ouse Washes is such a site - a strip of land a mile wide and 20 miles long, with the river on one side and a drainage channel on the other, in the Cambridgeshire Fens.

Constructed in the 17th century by the Dutch-born engineer Sir Cornelius Vermuyden, the washes form a gigantic flood reservoir which helps drain surrounding fenland for agriculture and store surplus floodwater from the river Ouse.

But besides being a drainage scheme, the washes make up a wonderful bird reserve. In winter when they are under water, they attract thousands of waterfowl including whooper and Bewick's swans from Iceland and Siberia. In summer, when they partially dry out, their damp grassland has been a perfect breeding ground for wading birds, which include rarities such as ruff and spotted crake, and from 1952 onwards, the black-tailed godwit.

A striking wader with a chestnut-red neck and breast in its breeding plumage, Limosa limosa had been extinct in England for more than a hundred years, and the story of its return to breed in eastern England is similar to that of its cousin the avocet - except that it is less well-known, with a much less happy ending.

After the birds came back to nest on the washes they did so well that they gradually built up their population to a peak of 65 pairs in the early 1970s. But then trouble began.

Development upstream on the Ouse, as far back as Milton Keynes, and increased agricultural drainage, led to a much heavier water load coming down the river, which in turn produced floods in summer as well as in winter. Frequently, the godwits' nests were washed away, and their population has steadily tumbled to just five pairs last year.

The Government has now accepted that it has an obligation under the EU directives to provide "compensatory habitat" to make up for the damage to the value of the washes as a wildlife site.

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