Farmers join forces to protect wading birds

Ten South Lanarkshire farmers will carry on monitoring wading bird populations and how they relate to soil health, past the end of formal projects and despite a failed funding bid.

The group, called Clyde Valley Waders, is the child of a Soil Association Scotland-led Rural Innovation Support Service (RISS) group, which in turn followed the work of the RSPB’s Clyde Valley Wader Initiative.

Picture: the first RISS meeting of the waders group in May 2019

Despite the RISS group unsuccessfully applying for the Scottish Government’s Knowledge Transfer and Innovation (KTIF) fund to run formal trials on their farms, where endangered birds such as lapwings and curlews seem to be more common than elsewhere, they decided to continue nonetheless. They have constituted their own group that will monitor nests and soil test, meeting two or three times a year, and continue to apply for local funding for trials.

I grew up listening for the first curlew

Chair of the Clyde Valley Waders, Doug Telfer, runs two farms in the Duneaton valley, one of which is 850-acre Glendouran, with 850 sheep and 50 breeding cows. He says: “I grew up on this farm, listening for the first curlew, the first peewit – when you hear the first curlew you know that spring’s here. On a moonlit night it’s alive up here with snipe and curlew. I wouldn’t want to hear it go quiet. This group of farmers are all of the same mind.

“We restrict sheep numbers, we record where the nests are. If there’s a nest I mark around it so we don’t spray. If you move a nest and put it back on the exact same spot the birds will come back to it.”

Picture: Doug finds a curlew nest at Glendouran. Two days later, the nest was taken, probably by a badger or fox

He explains that oats and barley used to be grown in Duneaton and neighbouring Douglas Valley, bringing the curlews and lapwings in droves. But now those crops are grown lower down on big arable farms, which don’t support waders either. 

“Our sort of farming is not so intensive,” he says. “It’s easy for us to restrict sheep numbers in a field. I have water margins I’ve fenced off to allow wildlife– we have a lot of ‘wet’ areas that suit wading birds. There are 50 acres at the bottom of the valley that just erupt!”

In 2019, 86.5% of the nests failed

Many of the farmers had been part of the Clyde Valley Wader Initiative, where the RSPB’s Stephen Inglis monitored the bird populations in 2019, explains the RISS group facilitator Jennifer Struthers of SAC Consulting, part of Scotland’s Rural College. “In that year, of the 104 nests surveyed, 86.5% failed,” she says, “but the rate was 80% on Agri-Environment Climate Scheme (AECS) fields and 92% on non-AECS fields. It was these staggering findings that spurred the farmers into forming a group. Environmental management means a lower stocking density and less trampling. Non-AECS fields are rolled and harrowed. But there is also a lot of predation.”

Picture: Scotland is home to an estimated 15% of the world’s breeding population of curlews. CREDIT: RSPB Scotland

The RSPB installed cameras and temperature loggers, some of which showed badgers and foxes taking the eggs of these ground nesting birds. “At the first RISS meeting we saw the footage - the badgers are like vacuum cleaners hoovering up the eggs,” says Doug Telfer.

The farmers care about having the birds there

“The farmers care about having the birds there – I can’t put into words how enthusiastic they have been,” says Struthers. “The RISS group provided a forum for them to come together and see what they could do to improve the situation. The RSPB monitoring was something that happened to them, and now they are doing it for themselves.

“Initially, I sent out a letter to a wider group of 25 people thinking maybe two would come to the first RISS meeting, but almost all of them came! A core group of around 15 has attended all four meetings.”

Through the meetings the group met PhD student Emma Sheard, of Stirling University, whose research indicates that liming soil may bring earthworms to the top, attracting waders. The farmers will make soil testing part of their activity, and will also help the British Trust for Ornithology, part of the Working for Waders initiative, with refining their monitoring.

Working alongside SAC, and with some financial contribution from the farmers, the group will carry out soil sampling, invertebrate counts and compaction testing over the summer.

Alongside the RSPB and SAC Consulting, they have also applied to the Biodiversity Challenge for funding to rectify some compaction and pH issues.  Struthers adds: “They have plenty of other ideas for on farm trials such as planting more kale or small areas of oats, and it will be exciting to see how we can progress these in future.”

“These birds are up against it,” says Doug Telfer. “They have humans, badgers and crows against them. It must be down to the humans to protect them, too.”

Join our online workshop Futureproof your Farm on May 20: How to adapt your farm business to Covid-19 and climate change


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