This article summarises a Bird Study paper arising from a 25-year Scottish study of breeding Lapwing, Oystercatcher, Redshank & Curlew. The story is set against a backdrop of a changing farming landscape.
The interesting and sobering feature of this paper about breeding waders by Mike Bell and John Calladine is that its focus is a ‘normal’ area of farmland in Scotland. If you’ve taken the A9 north of Stirling, through Strathallan, then you’ll have driven past the fields. Perhaps you might even have noticed displaying Lapwing, Oystercatcher, Curlew and Redshank? Over a 25-year period, the number of breeding waders in this valley and another one that runs northwest and that can be seen from the B827 has dropped from 600 pairs to just 76 – that’s a loss of 87%, or over 20 pairs per year.
So, what has changed in this part of Scotland that might be linked to these declines? The authors conclude that the reduction in numbers can be linked to changes in field management. Put simply, there are too few bare fields in the spring for Oystercatcher (down 95%) and Lapwing (down 88%). These two species hide their nests in ‘plain site’; they watch out for predators, take off early and hope that the eggs are coloured cryptically enough to avoid detection. Having left their nests, they attempt to deter and/or distract prowling crows etc. Redshanks (down 87%) and Curlew (down 67%) have also declined, even though they hide their nests in long grass, about which more later.
In for the long haul
In a survey in the late 1980s, this area of Strathallan held an important assemblage of farmland breeding waders, with particularly high densities of nesting Lapwing. Land use in the valley is predominantly agricultural, with a mixture of arable fields and grazing by sheep and beef cattle. It is a relatively open landscape with few hedgerows, some scattered shelter belts and small conifer plantations.
This study started in 1990, when breeding densities of nesting Oystercatcher, Lapwing, Redshank and Curlew in the core area were still high, at 11.7, 35.6, 4.7 and 3.3 pairs/km2 respectively. Unlike a PhD project, which might include three years of data, Mike Bell has kept this survey going for 25 years. Mike is the volunteer Regional Representative for the British Trust for Ornithology’s Perthshire region.
Breeding waders within a core area of 65 fields and a small amount of wet fen were surveyed annually from 1990 to 2015. The field sizes were small, by modern standards, with only five fields larger than 20 ha. An additional 1 km2 of lowland mixed farmland was surveyed in most years, 4 km2 of moorland rough grazing was surveyed in four years and another 5.3 km2 of enclosed and unenclosed rough grazing and moorland was surveyed at the beginning and end of the survey period only.
Land management and usage were recorded for each field on the first visit in April or early May. Spring sward height in each field was recorded as one of three categories: no vegetation, short (<10 cm) or long (>10 cm). These sward categories comprised the following field types:
- bare – ploughed or tilled land with no emergent vegetation
- short – managed grass for grazing or mowing for hay or silage, rough grass, rush pasture, spring arable, setaside/fallow.
- long – managed grass, rough grass, rush/pasture, setaside/fallow, heath/moorland, marsh/wetland, unmanaged rank grassland and woodland/scrub.
Where to find waders in Strathallan
In the early 1990s, Strathallan supported around 36 Lapwing pairs/km2 across the core study area, which is comparable with some of the highest densities reported anywhere in the UK. During the 25-year study, as the numbers of Lapwing, Oystercatcher, Redshank and Curlew declined, an increased proportion of the remaining breeding waders became restricted to areas with fields classed as ‘bare’ in spring, while the greatest losses were in fields with ‘short’ and ‘tall’ spring sward heights (see figure).
Breeding densities of Curlew were low throughout the study area and, although overall numbers declined, there was low power to detect statistically significant changes. There were different patterns of change for Lapwing, Oystercatcher and Redshank within fields of different spring sward heights:
- The least marked changes were in fields with no vegetation in spring.
- Fields with short swards showed the largest declines.
- The tallest spring sward heights supported the lowest densities of the three wader species, with Redshank present generally at low densities in all vegetation categories.
A changing farmland landscape
Sward heights reflected changing farming methods. Looking at the fields in terms of cropping regimes.
- The highest densities of Oystercatcher were in spring-sown arable crops.
- Rush pasture was the most favoured field type for Lapwing and Redshank at the start of the study but the amount of this habitat declined during the study, as farmers created semi-permanent pastures for over-wintering sheep. When this happened, birds became more restricted in their nesting distribution.
- By 2015, very few fields were still under a crop rotation of grass and spring arable, that would have delivered a mosaic of sward structures. By this time, half of the Lapwing pairs were nesting in just four fields.
The breeding success of Lapwings was estimated in five sample fields that could easily be observed from roads or tracks without disturbing the adults. Lapwing productivity was less than 0.60 young fledged/pair (the bench-mark for a typical stable population) in all but three years and it was less than 0.25 young fledged/pair in 14 of the 22 years. With very low recruitment rates, it is not surprising that the Lapwing is in decline.
What is changing?
Within a mixed arable-pasture farmland environment, bare field and short swards in spring appear to be important to breeding waders. Losses of these preferred habitats type don’t appear to fully account for the decline in numbers, however.
Alongside changes to farmland habitats, other potential factors that could have contributed to the decline of the wader population in Strathallan include an increased incidence of poor spring weather, increased disturbance (including from dog-walkers in some fields in some years) and an increase in predators. Mike Bell thinks that one of the reasons for a possible link between productivity declines and wet weather is that birds are nesting in sub-optimal (long) grass and hence more affected by wetter conditions. He writes about this and potential reasons for increased disturbance in an upcoming article in Scottish Birds. A link to the Scottish Birds article will be included when available.
Densities of avian predators increased in Strathallan during the study period, with higher breeding densities of Carrion Crow and Buzzard and an increasing frequency of bigger flocks of non-breeding crows. There was no detectable change in breeding success during the study but it is possible that nest success was already depressed by predation when the study commenced.
A relentless decline
Although previously identified as a good area for breeding waders, in a Scottish context, there is nothing unique about this Strathallan study area. It is good to see these issues explored in Bird Study, the BTO journal. I am sure that the editor, Ian Hartley, will have been pleased to publish a paper based on a nice mix of dedicated fieldwork and scientific analysis – that’s what the BTO is all about. If you want to understand the (not yet fully explained) sad demise of breeding waders in Scotland, check out the figures in the paper. These show a relentless, 25-year decline in nesting densities across a range of habitats and some less-than-subtle changes in the way that fields are now managed.
Here’s a link to the paper:
The decline of a population of farmland breeding waders: a twenty-five-year case study by Michael V. Bell & John Calladine in Bird Study, 64:2, 264-273 DOI: 10.1080/00063657.2017.1319903
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.