Working for Waders is a key initiative that is seeking to arrest the alarming decline in our wading bird population, writes Agnes Stevenson.

They are an iconic feature of our coastline and estuaries and their long-legged and long-billed silhouettes appear too on lochs and lagoons, but the waders that are so much a part of our landscape are in dire trouble.

In recent years populations of curlew and lapwing have collapsed, down 61% and 55% on what they once were, and oystercatchers too are struggling, with a third less of these beautiful birds being recorded around our shores.

Shifting weather patterns and changing agricultural practices have been identified as some of the reasons why these birds are now failing to thrive but it is only in recent years that the full extent of the problem has been highlighted.

Now urgent steps are being taken to reverse these population declines with Working for Waders, an initiative that brings together not just many different organisations and government bodies but also individuals including farmers, crofters and land managers who all have a significant role to play in turning the tide in favour of waders.

Jessica Findlay is a Wildlife Management Officer with NatureScot, one of the organisations involved in the initiative. She says that the last 25 years have seen numbers fall, with the most rapid declines being recorded in the last decade.
“Not everyone is aware of how badly populations have been affected,” she says.

“In some areas it still looks as if there are thousands of birds, while in other places they have all but disappeared.”
The first step to tackling the issue is raising awareness of the problem amongst those who can help to fix it and that means working with rural communities to change the timings of, amongst other things, grass cutting regimes.
“Without the sort of cover that they get from long grass the birds are much more at risk from predators,” says Jessica.

Other steps include not rolling fields in spring, so that nests are not destroyed.
Changing practices is not always straightforward but Jessica says she has been delighted by levels of engagement amongst farmers, including making ‘scrapes’ – shallow ponds that are dug out by a digger and remain damp all year round, allowing insects to breed and offering feed for waders.

Being able to offer small grants to help with this kind of work has proved to be very useful and other habitat management work includes cutting rushes and carrying out pest control. 

The public too, says Jessica, have a part to play by keeping dogs under control and Working for Waders is reinforcing the Access Code through promoting local signage that explains the breeding season of the birds and what dog owners can do to protect nests and chicks.

“Oystercatchers, like all waders, nest on the ground which is why keeping dogs away from them during nesting time is so important.”
Some waders, including Golden Plovers, make the journey to Scotland every summer, heading for moorlands to breed before flying back again before winter sets in.

Redshanks, meanwhile, can be found around remote streams and wetlands, although these are getting harder to spot with their numbers declining 44% in 22 years.

NatureScot, Scotland’s Rural College, the RSPB, the British Trust for Ornithology, the James Hutton Institute, the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust and others have all joined forces in Working for Waders to put in place additional measures that they hope will help to improve the chances of the birds.

 This way of working follows the recently adopted Shared Approach to Wildlife Management; a collaborative model which brings all sorts of people together to develop action.

Working for Waders is also open to ordinary members of the public to share their knowledge and enthusiasm to help tackle the decline of wading birds across Scotland.  
And the project, which was launched in 2017, is continuing to capture the imagination of increasing numbers of people who have a shared interest in ensuring that the distinctive cry of the lapwing and the lonely call of the curlew don’t disappear from these shores.

Just recently Working For Waders received a generous donation that allowed it to buy 25 trail cameras that are helping its members to understand the successes and failures of the waders across Scotland.

These cameras have been distributed to farms across the country including the Isle of Skye, Speyside, Galloway and the Borders – all of them once home to large populations of waders.

These cameras will be used to monitor what will hopefully be successful breeding seasons and help to inform watchers about the problems faced by these birds as part of a citizen science project that could make a positive impact on the future of some of Scotland’s most important bird species.

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This article is brought to you in association with NatureScot.