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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Tracking waders on the Severn

Birdwatchers are being asked to help with some cutting-edge science, simply by reporting sightings of colour-dyed Dunlin and colour-ringed Curlew and Redshank.

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The Severn: an empty estuary or a food-rich haven? (Corinna Blake)

The tides that create unique feeding opportunities for waders and other waterbirds on the Severn can potentially be harnessed to produce large amounts of clean energy. New impact assessment work aims to see how a development that would bring big benefits to the local economy might be carried out with as little negative environmental side-effects as possible.

Colour ringed Curlew by Kane Brides

Birdwatchers are asked to look out for colour-ringed Curlew and Redshank (Kane Brides)

The Severn is a great place for birds, especially waders, attracted to the area by mud that has high densities of mud-loving invertebrates such as ragworms. It is designated as an SPA, because of its importance to wintering species such as Bewick’s Swan, Curlew, Dunlin, Pintail, Redshank and Shelduck, and the spring passage of Ringed Plovers. There’s more about the SPA on the JNCC’s website.

The British Trust for Ornithology and Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust scientists have been awarded a contract to undertake an Environmental Impact Assessment for the proposed Cardiff Tidal Lagoon  by Tidal Lagoon Power, with BTO focusing on waders and WWT on ducks. It’s a unique opportunity not only to inform conservation planning but also to answer questions about the winter ecology of some key species. The team aims to:

  • Validate and refine methods developed by Richard Stillman (Bournemouth University) that predict bird distributions from food availability. (It’s easier to map food distribution than to follow bird movements)
  • Understand patterns of movement of species that use the proposed development area and other key sites, such as the Gwent Levels.
  • Track birds in order to identify feeding and roosting areas that are used when birds are hard to observe – in poor weather, at night and at all stages of tide.
  • Work out how mobile birds are, in order to propose ways in which lost feeding opportunities might be replicated as close by as possible.

Tagging

Tag on Curlew back (head covered to keep bird calm) by Lucy Wright

Tags like this should reveal how waders and ducks use the Severn estuary. Curlew by Lucy Wright.

Tagging is an important part of the project. Four-gramme Pathtrack tags are being glued to the backs of a sample of Curlew, Redshank, Shelduck and (hopefully) Shoveler. These should stay on for a couple of months, during which time movements will be logged every 90 minutes and downloaded using UHF receiving stations set up around the Severn. These four species have been chosen because, for each, more than 10% of the estuary’s population lies within the proposed footprint of the tidal lagoon.

Colour-rings

Colour ringed Redshank by Emily Scragg

This colour-ringed Redshank may well breed in Iceland but which areas of mud-flat does it use in the winter? (Emily Scragg)

Tagged Redshank and Curlew are also being colour-ringed, alongside others that are not being tagged. By collecting reports of colour-ringed birds from birdwatchers, the BTO team will be able to monitor the efficacy of the tag down-load process and keep a track of movements when the tags stop transmitting. As an added bonus, the colour-rings may generate some new information about the breeding sites of waders that winter on the Severn.

Sightings of colour-ringed birds would be very much appreciated. Five rings have been used on both Redshank and Curlew. Please submit sightings (date time and ideally a six-figure grid reference) to Emily.scragg@bto.org who would also be interested in “ratio counts” of flocks of birds – simply the number of colour-rings and the size of the flock.

Colour-dyed Dunlin

The Severn Estuary holds an estimated 3.2% of the European wintering population of the alpina race of Dunlin, birds that breed from Siberia across to northern Scandinavia. Dunlin are too small to carry transmitters that can be used with base stations so the team has gone back to traditional picric dye in order to look at the mobility of flocks. Any sightings of colour-marked Dunlin will be appreciated by emily.scragg@bto.org. Where possible, please submit ratio counts broken up into yellow/orange on breast (adults), yellow/orange on the rump (juveniles) and unmarked birds, together with date, time and location (ideally with six-figure reference).

Colour-dyed Shelduck

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The neck of this tagged Shelduck will be dyed yellow before release (Kane Brides)

It’s not just waders.  Over 3,000 Shelduck winter on the Severn, which is more than 1% of the European population. A sample has been caught by WWT. Ringed birds have a yellow/orange dye mark on the normally white plumage on the neck/upper breast (between the dark green head and the brown breast band). No Shoveler have been caught yet but the aim will be to put a similar dye-mark on these birds too.  Sightings of dye-marked ducks should be reported to Ed.burrell@wwt.org.uk

Impact Assessment

The consortium of organisations that is working on this new tidal-power study is well placed to combine impact assessment with high quality wader science. By focusing on Curlew and Redshank, both red-listed species of conservation concerned, it is to be hoped that more will be learnt about the winter feeding ecology of these two species. The BTO team has already discovered that Redshank fly further at night than was previously thought and hope to get to understand some of the pressures facing Curlew, now classified as globally near-threatened (see separate WaderTales blog)

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The Severn – Gareth Bradbury/WWT

This is not the first impact assessment work that has managed to incorporate research that increases the scientific understanding of wader behaviour and ecology. Two other examples are given below:

The Wash: Back in the 1970s, a plan to build huge reservoirs on the mud flats of the Wash, in which to store fresh water that might meet the growing demands of southeast England, led to a doubling of wader catching activity, intensive studies of their feeding ecology and complementary work on other taxa. Much was learned about the mobility of species within this huge estuary and the turn-over of birds within the annual cycle. A draft copy of the report is available on line at the NERC website 

Cardiff Bay: In the period 1989 to 2003, long-term studies took place to try to understand the impacts of closing Cardiff Bay and hence reducing the amount of tidal feeding area for waders. Following the development, it was shown that Redshank that had been displaced from the Bay were in poorer condition and had lower survival rates in subsequent winters.  There’s a summary on the JNCC website. The papers listed at the bottom of this JNCC web-page are essential reading for anyone trying to counter the ‘birds will simply go elsewhere’ arguments, which are sometimes put forward in favour of development work.


 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