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Worrying falls in populations of waders in Badenoch and Strathspey stronghold

By Gavin Musgrove

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Snipe have suffered the greatest fall in numbers since last survey. Picture: Ben Andrew.
Snipe have suffered the greatest fall in numbers since last survey. Picture: Ben Andrew.

Worrying declines in wader numbers in Badenoch and Strathspey – one of Scotland’s last safe havens – should be a ‘wake-up call’.

Efforts to understand the causes of fall in numbers now under way. The results of the latest survey of five farmland bird species have revealed worrying declines in numbers locally.

Fertile farmland areas in the strath, and Glenlivet, are some of the most important areas in mainland UK for breeding birds such as lapwing, snipe, redshank, oystercatcher and curlew.

However, since the last survey in 2015, the overall numbers in the strath have declined by 25 per cent with snipe and redshanks suffering the greatest drop in numbers (40 per cent and 30 per cent), followed by oystercatchers (21 per cent), lapwings (20 per cent) and curlews (eight per cent).

Experts have said the reasons for these declines are unclear and further work is required to understand them particularly as numbers increased or stayed stable on some of the farms surveyed.

The Strathspey Wetland & Wader Initiative (SWWI) organised last year’s survey and thanks to farmers and land managers for giving access and volunteers for their hard work undertaking the counts.

Surveys have taken place every five years since 2000, except for the 2020 survey which was delayed by a year due to Covid-19.

Last year co-ordinated surveys were also carried out across 21 farms in the Glenlivet area, in a first attempt to gather landscape wide numbers in this other important area.

Farmers across the local area have carried out much work to benefit waders. Without this, it is thought that the overall decline would certainly be larger.

All five species of wader surveyed have suffered alarming declines across the UK. For example, since the mid-1990s, curlew and lapwing numbers have dropped by more than 60 per cent in Scotland.

They have held on in some of Scotland’s islands and in a few key areas in mainland Scotland.

Therefore, it is essential to understand the reasons for the declines in numbers captured by these recent surveys to determine how they can be halted and not follow catastrophic trends seen elsewhere.

Wader scrape in rush and wet grassland in Strathspey.
Wader scrape in rush and wet grassland in Strathspey.

Last year was a very bad weather year, with some fields flooded at key times during the breeding season, and sudden cold snaps including heavy snow falls which can cause nests to fail at both egg and chick stage.

This is likely to be one reason why the numbers were low in 2021.

It is also possible changes over the last six years, in habitat or in predation pressure, are causing the recent declines. For example, new tree planting can make nearby fields less attractive to birds and make it easier for predators such as foxes and badgers to get closer to nesting birds.

SWII spokeswoman Anne Elliott said: “These survey results highlight the importance of co-operation and working at scale because without that you could easily miss the trends of how birds are doing across a landscape.

“We want to thank the 66 land managers that gave us access to survey more than 9100 ha of farmland and the 49 volunteers and 20 staff members that helped with the comprehensive counts.

“We are grateful for all the hard work farmers have done to manage their land to help waders and dread to think what the situation would be without that.

“However, we are extremely concerned about these latest results and want to get to the bottom of what else we can do to work together to protect this incredibly important population of waders.”

The main aim of SWWI, launched in 2009, is to deliver wader-friendly habitat in partnership with farmers and crofters to conserve the wader population in the strath.

• If farmers wish to seek advice on management for waders including on future rounds of agri-environment, they can contact Kate Clarke on kate.clarke@rspb.org.uk.

The next steps are to send out results to all farmers and offer site visits over the spring and summer, as well as taking a more detailed look at the results to understand the declines better.

The survey will be repeated again in 2025.

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