Do Iceland’s farmers care about wader conservation?

When working with Icelandic farmers to conserve internationally important wader populations, a shared understanding of beneficial practises may be more important than financial incentives.

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Species like Snipe, Redshank and Black-tailed Godwits have been squeezed out of lowland areas of countries such as the UK and the Netherlands by centuries of drainage, increasingly homogeneous landscapes and the introduction of quick-growing grassland monocultures. Adults have lost nesting sites, chicks have fewer feeding opportunities and pre-fledged youngsters fall victim to farm machinery. Do the same fates await waders in Iceland or might it be possible to work with farmers to leave space for birds?

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Pools, set within semi-natural lightly-grazed fields, are important

As part of her PhD at the University of Iceland, in collaboration with the Universities of East Anglia (UK) and Aveiro (Portugal), Lilja Jóhannesdóttir asked farmers what they think about having birds on their land, what their plans are for their farms, whether they might be willing to leave some pools and focus farming activities in areas less important for birds, and if farm subsidies might encourage them to be more proactive conservationists. The sometimes surprising results of this questionnaire have been published in Ecology & Society.

Reconciling biodiversity conservation and agricultural expansion in the subarctic environment of Iceland. Lilja Jóhannesdóttir, José A. Alves, Jennifer A. Gill  and Tómas G. Gunnarsson. Ecology and Society 22(1):16.

The Waders of Iceland

tableIn a recent report prepared by AEWA (Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds), in response to concerns about the effects of afforestation on Iceland’s waterbirds, Dave Pritchard & Colin Galbraith say “Iceland is second only to Russia in its importance as a breeding ground for migratory waterbirds in the AEWA region. It supports the most important breeding populations in Europe for six species of waders, and is the second most important country for three.”

Data in the table alongside have been extracted from Annex 4 of their report, which was discussed at the 12th Standing Committee of AEWA in Jan/Feb 2017. Iceland is home to c 75% of Europe’s breeding Whimbrel, over half of the area’s breeding Dunlin and perhaps half of its Golden Plover. The importance of Iceland has increased with the collapse of wader populations in other countries.

Waders on farmland

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Spring flock of Black-tailed Godwit feeding in a stubble field

Farmed landscapes in Iceland provide opportunities for waders. In the spring, newly-arrived flocks of Golden Plover spread out over hayfields, Black-tailed Godwits target the previous year’s barley stubbles and parties of feeding waders can be seen in sedge pools on farms. During the breeding season, the application of fertilisers, especially in areas where volcanic ash deposition is low, increases soil productivity and wader densities, as was shown in this blog about regional productivity. Come the autumn, hayfields attract flocks of birds fattening up for migration. Despite drainage of an estimated 55% to 75% of wetlands in Iceland in the last seventy years, the country is still a great place for waders.

The amount of intensively-farmed land in Iceland is increasing, to some extent driven by rapid recent increases in the number of tourists, who consume milk products and meat. This can be seen in the ongoing development of hayfields, to feed cattle, and barley production, for pig-feed. There is concern that these developments will impact upon wader numbers, through the reduction in the amount of semi-natural habitat, especially in the lowlands, loss of pools and reduced landscape heterogeneity. On top of these changes, warmer temperatures allow earlier cuts of silage which increases the risk of killing wader chicks that nest within these fields.

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More and more semi-natural land is being lost to grass monocultures

Lilja Jóhannesdóttir’s PhD is focused on how birds use the gradient of habitats that comprise farmland in lowland Iceland – from more intensively farmed fields through to lightly-grazed, semi-natural habitats. The paper that forms the focus of this blog looks at farmers’ attitudes to the birds that share Iceland’s farms and their plans for the future. It then attempts to reveal the willingness and capacity of landowners to engage with conservation management practises.

The questionnaire

To understand the views of Icelandic farmers toward bird conservation, given the current potential for agricultural expansion, Lilja interviewed 62 farmers across Iceland, using a structured questionnaire. Some of the key findings are:

  • Over 60% of farmers are likely or very likely to increase their area of cultivated land
  • Over 90% of farmers think it is important or very important to have rich birdlife on their estates
  • About 60% would consider modifying grazing regimes to help birds
  • More than 80% would be unlikely or highly unlikely to consider changing the timing of harvesting operations.
  • More than 80% would be happy to consider keeping pools intact
  • Information on conservation needs are more likely to change attitudes than financial incentives

The information collected in the questionnaires was analysed by region and by the age of the interviewee but no strong patterns emerged. Older farmers seem to appreciate birdlife more than their younger colleagues but are no more likely to change their behaviours to support conservation objectives. The detailed figures are reported in the paper.

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Creating new hayfield to produce cattle-food is at the expense of areas of semi-natural land

The majority of the Icelandic farmers who took part in the survey plan to expand their agricultural land in the next five years, and this is likely to be driven further by increasing demands for farming products. This implies that conversion of semi-natural land into farmland is likely to greatly increase in the near future, with potentially severe and widespread impacts on the internationally important bird populations that currently breed in these areas. Such expansion could put Iceland on a similar trajectory to many other countries that have experienced substantial biodiversity declines on the back of agricultural intensification and expansion. On the positive side, Icelandic farmers like wildlife and the results suggest that if they are better informed about the consequences of their actions they might well try to modify plans in ways that reduce negative impacts. The possibility of financial incentives to off-set potential losses did not seem to influence farmers’ views, but the authors suggest that this might be because there is no tradition for farmers to receive subsidies for conservation action.

b-horsesA clear finding of the study is that farmers are unlikely to change the timing of agricultural operations in order to help birds. Perhaps this is unsurprising in a country with a very short growing season and where periods of settled weather are rare. With relatively few consecutive dry days, opportunities to mow and turn silage or hay crops just have to be taken. The timing of farming operations, such as harvesting/mowing, can be crucial for breeding waders because they can result in the destruction of nests, chicks, and adults during the breeding season. For example, advances in timing of mowing of hayfields in the Netherlands has meant that this now coincides more frequently with wader nesting and chick rearing, causing unsuccessful breeding attempts and leading to lower recruitment. There is more about the Dutch experience in this Ibis paper.

If Icelandic farmers are unlikely to delay operations, perhaps other strategies, such as mowing fields from the centre – as used in the Outer Hebrides to reduce Corncrake losses – might be more acceptable to farmers who are so constrained by the weather? Read more about the Corncrake issue here. 

The Future

b-whimbrelAs a signatory to international agreements on the conservation of birds and wetlands (Ramsar Convention, Bern Convention, Convention on Biological Diversity and African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement), the Icelandic government is required to take action to protect the internationally important bird populations breeding in the country. Given that there is no strong tradition of using planning laws or centralised agricultural policy to influence farmers’ decisions, working with individual farmers might be the best way to deliver conservation objectives.

Farmers’ views on the importance of having rich birdlife on their land and their willingness to participate in bird conservation provide a potential platform to work with landowners to design conservation management strategies – and to do this before further substantial changes in the extent of agriculture take place in this subarctic landscape. With three-quarters of Europe’s breeding Whimbrel and about half of the Golden Plover and Dunlin dependent upon decisions made in Iceland, there is a lot at stake.

Reconciling biodiversity conservation and agricultural expansion in the subarctic environment of Iceland. Lilja Jóhannesdóttir, José A. Alves, Jennifer A. Gill  and Tómas G. Gunnarsson. Ecology and Society 22(1):16.

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 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.

@grahamfappleton

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Black-tailed Godwit pairs – the importance of synchrony

How long does a godwit wait around to see if last year’s mate will turn up?

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Newly-arrived Black-tailed Godwits. Time for a wash & brush up and then off to territory?

Colour-ringing enabled Tómas Gunnarsson to follow the lives of pairs of Black-tailed Godwits nesting near his parents’ home in Iceland. In this world, that is ruled by timing and opportunity, the pairings, divorces and re-pairings could form the plot for a TV soap-opera. The studies turned into a fascinating Nature paper that was written up in The Telegraph newspaper. The two main characters were christened Gretar and Sigga  by the journalist but they’re more commonly known as RY-RO and RO-RO.

A tale of two godwits

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How long should this godwit wait for its mate?

2002: Colour-ringed Black-tailed Godwits RY-RO (red yellow – red orange) and RO-RO bred successfully in Laugaras, in the inland part of Iceland’s Southern Lowlands. Come the autumn, they left Iceland. The female (RO-RO) probably spent the winter in Portugal, although she was only seen there in later years, and the male (RY-RO) opted for the somewhat colder conditions of eastern England.

2003: Next spring, RO-RO arrived on territory on 6 May, before her mate. She cannot have known whether he was late or dead when she made the decision to move in with a new male, who was later colour-ringed as OR-OO.  When RY-RO arrived back a week later, on 13 May, he had to find himself a new female (GG-YO), who had been paired to a different male in 2002.

2004: Come the spring of 2004, RO-RO and RY-RO arrived at the same time and got back together.

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Tómas Gunnarsson with one of the colour-ringed Black-tailed Godwits

This is only one story but it seems to illustrate that there are good reasons to nest with a partner that is well known to you. This could help to illustrate why individual godwits are generally very good at timing their arrival back on territory, to synchronise with their partners, as revealed in this Nature paper, published in 2005.

Gunnarsson, T.G., Gill, J.A., Sigurbjörnsson, Þ. & Sutherland W.J. (2004) Arrival synchrony in migratory birds. Nature, 431, 646-646. DOI: 10.1038/431646a

In the paper the authors described the return of pairs of Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits to Laugaras in the spring of 2003. Godwits generally arrive in Iceland over a one-month period, between mid-April and the middle of May.

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Each line joins the wintering locations of a pair of godwits

On average, previously paired males and females in the study arrived within 3.1 days of one another, despite the fact that males and females from the same pair had spent the winter on average about 1000 km apart and that there is no evidence that any pairs had met at passage sites prior to crossing the Atlantic. Arrival synchrony seems to be related to mate retention, as the only divorces occurred in two of the three pairs that arrived more than eight days apart.

Synchrony in timing of arrival on the breeding grounds may be important for retaining a mate from the previous year and avoiding a costly divorce – but how it is achieved is a mystery.

Warmer springs

Tómas Gunnarsson and his father, Gunnar Tómasson, have been studying the timings of spring arrival in south Iceland of a range of species since 1988. In a 2011 paper in Bird Study they estimated that the timing of arrival of the first black-tailed godwit moved earlier by about 5.5 days per decade over that period. Here’s a link to the paper.

graphAs this advance in spring timing of migration was already happening when Tómas was making observations of the paired birds in Laugaras in 2003, we were all interested to see whether the schedules of marked birds would advance in similar ways. Interestingly, we have been able to show that the timing of arrival of individual Black-tailed Godwits is actually not changing at all. There is year-to-year variation in the dates on which individuals arrive, but no trend. Instead it is new recruits into the population that are driving the earlier migration. There’s a blog about this here.

Whilst there are processes in play that mean new recruits are migrating earlier than their predecessors, there must also be reasons why time-fidelity is important for individual birds. Perhaps synchrony increases the probability that individuals will be able to nest with the same mate in subsequent years? This is hinted at by the fact that godwits have been observed to re-pair with previous partners if opportunities present themselves.

Potential benefits of re-pairing with the same mate

For Black-tailed Godwits, not enough is known about the benefits of retaining the same mate. Given that divorce events are rare, it would be hard to measure any consequences for productivity – even if the nests were easy to find and youngsters easy to track – neither of which is the case. For the moment, all that is available is evidence of divorce and the possibility that females will not wait for males that are late.

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Nests are well hidden

Black-tailed Godwits are long-lived birds, with breeding territories in which resources are generally predictably distributed, and a pair is likely to be familiar with local predator densities and distributions. Whilst one member of the pair is incubating the eggs, the other spends a lot of time looking out for potential predators, and this mutual protection may well confer benefits for the adults and the eggs. Perhaps knowing the behaviour of one’s partner is important during the incubation period?

The complexities of incubating eggs

If the daily routines associated with parental change-overs at the nest become established over time, might this be an important driver towards fidelity? Fast forward to a paper on shorebird incubation patterns, published in Nature in 2016 by Martin Bulla et al, which might provide some clues:

Unexpected diversity in socially synchronised rhythms of shorebirds Nature 540,109–113 (01 December 2016) doi:10.1038/nature20563

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This actogram from the Bulla Nature paper creates some wonderful patterns

This paper is the result of a collaboration between Martin Bulla and 75 of his wader biologist colleagues, all happy to share data on nest incubation patterns which Martin then analysed. This resulted in an amazing data-set of 729 nests from 91 populations of 32 shorebird species, from which Martin was able to report remarkable within- and between-species differences in nest incubation rhythms.

This study suggests that energetic demands are not an important ecological driver of incubation bout length, but instead that pairs have developed idiosyncratic incubation patterns, possibly as an anti-predation strategy. Effectively, risk of predation, rather than risk of starvation, may have a key role in determining some of the variation in incubation rhythms. This means that species that hide their nests (and themselves) incubate for longer and change places less frequently.

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Incubating Ringed Plovers change places frequently

Ringed Plovers, for instance, walk away from their eggs when a potential predator approaches and change places on the nest frequently. A male or female Redshank, on the other hand, will sit tight and brood for about six hours before exchanging with its partner. While partner A is hunkered down on the nest, partner B leaves the area, so as not to draw any attention to the pre-packaged protein that partner A is sitting on. If B is only going to return when A is ready for a surreptitious change-over then the activities of the two need to be well synchronised.

As the authors point out in the paper, although the context for this comparative study was diversity in biparental incubation, it is possible that diverse behavioural rhythms may also arise in other social settings (for example, in the context of mating interactions or vigilance behaviour during group foraging). These are other circumstances in which it may well be beneficial to know one’s partner.

What does this mean for RY-RO and RO-RO?

Perhaps fidelity and synchronicity are really important to Black-tailed Godwits? If only their nests were easier to find and nest success was easier to measure! For the moment, all that we know is that pairs of Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits are remarkably synchronous in their arrival times on breeding territory, and something important must have driven the evolution of such a finely tuned migratory strategy.


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.

@grahamfappleton