Bumper year for Britain’s breeding wading birds at coastal site

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Avocet on Orford Ness. Photo credit: National Trust / Sam Cooper

Rangers at Orford Ness in Suffolk are celebrating a successful nesting season for the wading birds that migrate to live on the shingle spit for some of the year.

Surveys by the team and volunteers between April and July recorded 51 pairs of rare and at risk redshanks, the highest number of breeding pairs since recording began in 2005, with this year also being the second highest number of breeding pairs of lapwing and avocet.

The big increase in numbers is the result of careful management of the landscape to create ideal habitats for the birds to nest. The main breeding sites of Kings Marsh and Airfield Marsh were historically used for military experiments by the Ministry of Defence but are now brackish lagoons thriving with wildlife.

Sam Cooper, Area Ranger for the National Trust at Orford Ness said:

“It’s a team effort to look after the nesting sites, so we are really pleased to see this increase of breeding pairs.

“The birds like slightly different nesting habitats – avocets and lapwings like to nest in the open wetland, but the redshank prefer tussocks, or clumps of short damp grass – so we use a variety of mowing, brush cutting and the sheep graze the land to create a mosaic of long and short grass.

“It’s also important to maintain optimum water levels on the marsh and we use a network of sluices and drainage systems across the island to make sure the levels are just right. The islands in the lagoons protect the birds from land-based predators such as foxes and limit disturbance from Chinese Water Deer, and they are also ideal conditions for invertebrate such as shrimp, which are an excellent source of food for the birds.

“The recent heatwave and sustained periods of hot weather have been difficult for the birds and other species as the marshes haven’t been as wet as we’d like them to be.  If we continue to have more hot weather as predicted due to climate change this will have a really negative impact on the habitats for all wildlife that live on Orford Ness.”

Overall numbers were just short of being the best ever year due to avian predators such as marsh harriers and corvids, but as Sam points out this is a sign of a healthy ecosystem. “All wildlife that live on the Ness have an important role to play in the ecosystem and the fact that we have such high numbers of a wide variety of birds show it’s really healthy.

“It’s a careful balance to maintain the habitats so that all the birds and other wildlife can thrive. Birds such marsh harriers and lesser black-backed gulls are also on the amber list for conservation and it’s our job to look after them too.

“The recent avian flu outbreak has had a devastating impact on seabird colonies but luckily it doesn’t appear to have impacted this area of coast as much as others and so far our wading bird populations have escaped the disease.”

As part of the survey, the birds are also ringed by a small team of trained staff and volunteers to monitor their movements and help better understand the changes in population.

Sam concluded: “Ringing the chicks is hugely important for us to learn migratory patterns of the birds, as well as feeding habits of the birds. Lapwings and redshanks live for about four year and avocets about seven years and it can be really exciting to see where the birds might be spotted. We might see some of the chicks returning to the Ness but they could go anywhere, even as far away as Europe and north Africa.”

Orford Ness is open until 30th October and visit can be booked via the website www.nationaltrust.org.uk/orfordness 

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