Can a mosaic of habitats boost hatching success in grassland-breeding Lapwings?
Lapwings are becoming more and more restricted in their distribution within the United Kingdom, with an increasing proportion dependent on a small number of lowland wet grassland sites, particularly nature reserves. Working in this habitat, a team from the RSPB and the University of East Anglia has been trying to work out if it is possible to substantially improve Lapwing productivity without using intensive, costly predator management, in the form of permanent electric fences.
The RSPB has been monitoring breeding waders on their Berney Marshes reserve in Norfolk for over 20 years. Even with fox control, a wader-friendly grazing regime and sensitive regulation of water levels, Lapwing nesting success on this site is still below 0.6-0.8 chicks per pairs in most years, which is the estimated range required for population stability (Macdonald & Bolton 2008a). Predation is the main issue that is still limiting productivity.
Previous work has shown that:
- Providing areas of tall, dense grass (often along field verges) can encourage populations of small mammals, which are the main prey of most wader nest predators (Laidlaw et al 2012).
- The lay-out of wet features can influence Lapwing nesting densities (Eglington et al 2008).
- Nest survival is higher when Lapwing densities are higher (Macdonald & Bolton 2008b).
The team believe that these three factors – small mammal distribution, surface water and Lapwing nesting density – are very likely to influence the behaviour and distribution of red foxes, the key predator in this study area.
In a recent RSPB/UEA project, Dr Becky Laidlaw has investigated these relationships further and has then used the trends that have been established to model different potential management scenarios. What could happen if nesting densities, wetness and the proximity of verges with small mammals could all be varied in the best ways possible? Is there a theoretical scenario in which productivity is high enough to fuel population growth?
The right habitat mix?
Using relationships established from previous studies and collating seven years of information on over 1400 individual nesting attempts, Dr Becky Laidlaw and her colleagues from UEA and RSPB saw that, not only was nesting success being influenced by wetness and the proximity of tall grass, there were some subtleties relating to the way that habitats are distributed. Might it be possible to redesign the site so as to create a patchwork that could achieve the required productivity levels? Becky had two variables to play with – verges and wet features.
Verges influence predation rates, with Lapwing nests further from tall vegetation areas having a higher likelihood of being predated. This makes sense if foxes are concentrating on catching small mammals in areas with high mammal densities, and are more likely to ignore eggs that are laid in short grass close to mammal-rich verges. There’s more about the complex interactions between foxes, small mammals and nests in this paper.
Water also influences wader nest predation rates. This is not surprising; if you are a fox, it is probably going to be harder to search for nests in a wet field with lots of pools and ditches than in a dry field. Interestingly, the study found that nests in the centre of dry fields were more at risk than those at the centre of wet fields. In a wet field, it’s riskier to nest along the edge, whilst in a dry field the risk increases the further the nest is from the edge.
The study confirmed that isolated Lapwing nests are more at risk of predation, potentially because single pairs don’t benefit from the mobbing defensive behaviour provided by having plenty of nesting neighbours. They found a similar pattern with Redshank nest predation risk; these scarcer breeding waders appear to be protected by the presence of more Lapwing.
Becky then worked with Mark Smart, the RSPB manager with responsibility for Berney Marshes, to model some potential future management scenarios for the site. They worked out where it would be feasible to add or remove verges and increase or decrease surface wetness within fields. Becky then used existing relationships to predict what changes in nest predation rates might be expected. Were there management options that could significantly increase survival rates of nests?
Becky compared the different modelled management scenarios with the long term average nest predation rate for the site. She found a significant (roughly 20%) reduction in nest predation could potentially be achieved with the addition of tall vegetation, but only for nests close to field edges in areas of high Lapwing nest density. Importantly, this sort of decrease in nest predation levels could potentially increase the number of chicks hatching by around 100 each year, but such management relies upon areas of sufficiently high Lapwing breeding density being available.
The influence of nesting density
The aim of this applied research was to find a way to manage breeding habitat for Lapwing that could be rolled out to areas of conservation-sensitive farming outside nature reserves. Given the subtleties of creating the right patchwork of wet features and long grass at Berney, it’s going to be tricky to get similar benefits on other sites. If habitat management alone is not enough, even when used alongside fox control, then what else can be done?
Becky has a possible answer. “The breeding density measure we are using is the number of active nests within 100 metres of a nest. It may therefore be important not only for nests to be clustered in fields with appropriate conditions, but also that they are at the same stage at the same time. Synchronous nesting is something that we think might be very important.”
From data collected on RSPB reserves with and without electric fences (which exclude foxes), it is clear that fencing greatly increases the synchrony of nesting attempts (because most of the early nesting attempts are successful). Given that the density of active nests has a major effect on nest survival rates, increasing the number of nests active at the same time may well provide a greater level of protection, through the mobbing behaviour of Lapwing, and therefore lead to greater hatching success.
As part of a new piece of research (funded by NERC, a UK government research council), Becky and the UEA/RSPB team are going to test whether the provision of temporary electric fences for just the early part of the breeding season can provide sufficient protection to increase hatching success, as a consequence of nests being more synchronous. If early-reared chicks are more likely to fledge than late-reared chicks, there also may be additional knock-on benefits post-hatching and through to the recruitment stage. This work is taking place in RSPB’s Yare Valley reserves and at Carlton Marshes (Suffolk Wildlife Trust).
Becky is hopeful. “We understand how wader predation rates are influenced by the proximity to verges, the accessibility issues caused by water and the mobbing, defensive behaviour of waders. We are now interested in determining the best way to use this information in management. With the new work with fences we’re going to be specifically exploring the importance of synchrony to both nest success and productivity”.
Graham (@grahamfappleton) has studied waders for over 40 years and is currently involved in wader research in the UK and in Iceland. He was Director of Communications at The British Trust for Ornithology until 2013 and is now a freelance writer and broadcaster.