Naturalists set up 'air traffic control' network to save birds

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Naturalists are to set up a global "air traffic control" network to protect the nesting and feeding sites of tens of millions of endangered migratory birds.

Naturalists are to set up a global "air traffic control" network to protect the nesting and feeding sites of tens of millions of endangered migratory birds.

Ornithologists are alarmed by fresh evidence that dozens of geese, wader and duck species now setting off on their annual migration south are facing extinction or, at best, a steep decline in numbers.

Some migratory birds face imminent extinction, such as the sociable lapwing, which flies from the Russian steppe to the Middle East. Others, like the red knot, which migrates the full length of the Americas from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, are facing extreme and sudden decline.

Many of Britain's best-loved waders - such as the oystercatcher and ringed plover - have declined by up to 15 per cent since the 1980s. The Greenland white-fronted goose, which nests in summer in northern Britain and Ireland, is also dying out.

Now, in a concerted attempt to tackle the crisis, conservationists met in Edinburgh last week to begin drawing up the first world-wide tracking and planning system to protect the "air lanes", nesting sites and feeding places these birds use. Dr David Stroud, senior ornithologist at the UK's main conservation science agency, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, said: "It's not a pretty picture at the moment.

"These birds are flying long distances as part of their biological cycle, but they need fuel and Britain's estuaries, for instance, are of major importance. Clearly, if you remove a key feeding site, these birds just don't have the physical ability to continue their migration. If you remove one link, then the whole migratory pattern can fall apart."

Last month, experts meeting in Spain heard that almost half of all the world's wader species, such as the long-billed plover, the dunlin and the bristle-thighed curlew, which flies non-stop from Alaska to the south Pacific, were in decline owing to human pressures, climate change and habitat loss.

The "air traffic control" proposal will focus on the world's nine major "flyways", by asking countries to monitor the numbers and types of birds flying through their airspace, plot their flight paths and protect or repair their nesting, breeding and feeding grounds. In some cases, governments will have to set up schemes to track poorly understood species - potentially using satellites and tagging techniques.

The scheme will provoke clashes over economic developments. One battle ground is Iceland's decision to build a massive hydro-electric dam at Karahnjukar, which will destroy the breeding sites of pink-footed and greylag geese. Despite being a major staging post in the "east Atlantic flyway" - which takes more than 90 million water birds from the Arctic through Europe to southern Africa - Iceland has refused to join a European and African scheme to protect migratory birds. And in South Korea, naturalists are furious at plans to reclaim a 155 sq mile inter-tidal wetland which could kill off the extremely rare spoon-billed sandpiper. The site is a crucial feeding place on the "East Asian-Australasian flyway" that runs from the Arctic to Australia and the south Pacific.

In the US, controversy surrounds the horseshoe crab fishery in Delaware Bay, a key feeding place on the "Atlantic flyway", which is blamed for a sudden decline in red knot numbers. The bird feeds on the crab's eggs but the crab is being chronically overfished.

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