Big Foot and the Redshank Nest

What’s the crunch point? Grazed saltmarsh is an important habitat for Redshank but the addition of an extra four large feet can have serious negative effects. 

Cattle top adam cross

Each grazing unit comes with four very large feet (Adam Cross)

In a 2016 paper in Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, Elwyn Sharps and colleagues from Bangor University, CEH and the RSPB have shown that there is a tricky balance between providing the open, grazed habitats in which Redshanks can breed and minimising the likelihood of nests being trampled by cattle. If only cattle could do their important habitat management work outside the nesting season? However, the grass keeps growing and these four-footed, saltmarsh mowing machines usually arrive on site in spring and stay throughout the summer.

Sharps, E., Garbutt, A., Hiddink, J. G., Smart, J., & Skov, M. W. (2016). Light grazing of saltmarshes increases the availability of nest sites for Common Redshank Tringa totanus, but reduces their quality. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, 221, 71-78. 



Distribution map from Bird Atlas 2007-11, which is a joint project between BTO, BirdWatch ireland and the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club

In the United Kingdom, Redshanks are amber listed species of conservation concern, increasingly restricted in their distribution. The map alongside shows that breeding Redshanks have been lost from many areas (downwards pointing black arrows). More distribution maps from Bird Atlas 2007-11 can be found on the BTO Mapstore.

Although they breed in various grassland habitats, coastal saltmarshes are internationally important. The breeding population on British saltmarshes has reduced by over 50% since 1985. Declines have been linked to grazing management, as breeding densities are higher with light and moderate grazing than on heavily grazed or ungrazed saltmarshes (Norris et al., 1998; Malpas et al., 2013).

Intensive grazing leads to a very short, uniform sward, lighter grazing produces a more uneven patchy sward with diverse heights whilst no grazing can leave saltmarshes with dense communities of coarse grasses. For Redshank, which need clumps of grass in which to hide their nests and more open areas in which chicks can feed, light grazing is a key management tool.  Elwyn Sharps and his colleagues, working on the saltmarshes of the Ribble Estuary in northwest England, were interested to see just how light a grazing regime worked for the local Redshanks.

CattleWorking on the Wash, nearly twenty years previously, Ken Norris and colleagues had found that breeding densities were higher in structurally diverse grazed vegetation, and recommend low stocking densities of about 1 cattle ha-1, in order to create a patchy vegetation sward, suitable for nesting Redshank. This falls within the UK Environment Agency definition of light saltmarsh cattle grazing of between 0.7 and 1 young cattle per hectare between April and October, which translates to an annual cattle density of 0.3 to 0.5 cattle per hectare per year.  Work on the Ribble suggests that light grazing can reduce nest survival both directly through nest trampling and indirectly through accelerating predation risks. Breeding densities may appear high in some areas but productivity can still be very low.

An earlier paper by Elwyn Sharps et al. showed that the risk of Redshank nest predation increased from 28% with no grazing to 95% with grazing of 0.5 cattle per hectare per year, which is still within the definition of light grazing. Some of the nest failures were due to trampling, with 1 out of 5 nests being affected in areas with the lowest stocking rates and 4 out of 8 in the most heavily stocked (though still defined as lightly-grazed) area.

What do Redshank need?

Trampled egg christine tansey

Crunch point: when a large foot meets a fragile clutch (Christine Tansey)

In lowland wet grasslands, Jennifer Smart demonstrated that Redshank select tall nest vegetation, with some additional cover in a wider 10m area around the nest. Elwyn Sharps investigated nest site selection by Redshank breeding in six lightly grazed saltmarshes around the Ribble in with cattle densities were between of 0 to 0.55 grazing units ha-1 y-1.  In May and June 2012, a total of 45 Redshank nests were found across the six saltmarshes (between 5 and 10 nests per marsh) and vegetation heights and species composition were measured at and in the vicinity of nests, as well as at control points.

Redshank nest christine tansey

Christine Tansey

On The Ribble, vegetation height was taller at, next to and in the wider area around nests, when compared to control points, for all spatial scales studied, in line with those found on lowland wet grasslands. The vegetation composition was different in the immediate vicinity and in the wider area around nests than at control points, indicating that Redshank select nest sites surrounded by particular species of vegetation. Most of the dissimilarity between nests and control points was due to red fescue (Festuca rubra), which was more abundant near nests than at control points. There is a suggestion from the Ribble data that Redshank select nests within communities of F. rubra, which is a species associated with cattle-grazing in higher elevation saltmarsh.

Implications for land management


Not quite long enough? Redshank nests are often completely hidden withing clumps of grass (Kevin Simmonds)

The results of this study suggest that livestock grazing plays an important role in creating the F. rubra nesting habitat preferred by Redshank nesting on the Ribble Estuary. However, even low intensity conservation grazing can create a shorter than ideal sward height, potentially leaving Redshank nests more vulnerable to predators. Translating the UK Environment Agency light grazing guidelines of 0.7-1 young cattle per hectare between April and October to measurements used in this study would mean an annual cattle density of around 0.4-0.5 cattle per hectare per year, which this study suggests is too intensive for breeding Redshank.

Elwyn Sharps suggests that future solutions should focus on designing grazing regimes which increases sward heights for Redshank nesting. This could include delaying the start of grazing until most Redshank stop nesting in mid-July, but then grazing more intensively afterwards. This would allow vegetation to remain tall during the nesting season, but would still maintain a cover of F. rubra.


To read more about RSPB studies of breeding Redshanks visit this WaderTales blog (Kirsty Turner)

Another potential management solution may be a rotational grazing system, whereby saltmarshes are grazed and left ungrazed in alternate years, potentially improving habitat quality by allowing the vegetation to grow taller in the ungrazed year. However, on a small scale, Redshank may then select the part of a saltmarsh that was previously ungrazed , and therefore the area that will soon be grazed. It is clear that there are a number of possible solutions to this problem that require further investigations if the ideal saltmarsh management option for Redshank is to be ascertained. In working out how to manage saltmarshes for breeding waders, land managers will need to take account of the needs of other breeding species, overwintering wildfowl, and wider saltmarsh biodiversity, each of which may apply different constraints.

Sharps, E., Garbutt, A., Hiddink, J. G., Smart, J., & Skov, M. W. (2016). Light grazing of saltmarshes increases the availability of nest sites for Common Redshank Tringa totanus, but reduces their quality. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, 221, 71-78.

And another problem…

In a more recent 2017 paper in Ecology & Evolution, Elwyn Sharps and colleagues show that cattle spend their time in the same areas of a saltmarsh as the ones in which Redshanks like to nest. Their conclusion is that “grazing management should aim to keep livestock away from redshank nesting habitat between mid-April and mid-July, when nests are active, through delaying the onset of grazing or introducing a rotational grazing system”.

Nest trampling and ground nesting birds: Quantifying temporal and spatial overlap between cattle activity and breeding redshank.

 GFA in Iceland

WaderTales blogs are written by Graham Appleton, to celebrate waders and wader research.  Many of the articles are based on previously published papers, with the aim of making wader science available to a broader audience.





One thought on “Big Foot and the Redshank Nest

  1. Pingback: Wales: a special place for waders | wadertales

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s