By Will Bevan – Beach-Nesting Bird Field Officer in East Norfolk
After spending last summer helping to protect the beach-nesting birds of East Norfolk, in April this year I was eagerly anticipating my return for another season. Being largely nocturnal in 2021, with my exploits as a night warden detailed on this blog, in 2022 I returned as a fully-fledged Field Officer.
Our work covers three sites in East Norfolk and North Suffolk, with a team of dedicated volunteers and Field Officers working day and night over the breeding season to provide protection. Methods involve three sets of fencing (rope, electric, and poultry netting), signage, round the clock wardening, and public engagement and education on the beach and in the wider community. The focus is mainly on little terns, but this protection benefits other beach-nesting birds including ringed plovers, oystercatchers, and avocets.
Little tern conservation is fraught with worry, as the odds seem to be stacked against them so heavily it is a wonder that any chicks fledge! Nesting in vulnerable spots on shingle beaches just above the tideline, they face numerous threats including human disturbance, dogs off leads, egg thieves, high tides and stormy weather (made worse by climate change), and predation from ground and aerial predators. Despite early disappointment last year with failures at two of our colony sites, mainly due to aerial predation pressure, the season ended up being a success overall with these failed birds moving to another site and re-laying, with around 137-216 fledglings leaving in mid-August. However, this was still just below the productivity target of 0.75 required to maintain or increase the population.
This result also highlighted the importance of having several sites set up and ready to receive little terns which might fail elsewhere but have a second attempt at breeding in another location.
With all this and stories from previous seasons in mind, it’s always a good idea not to raise hopes too high early in the season, as any number of things can go wrong. However, it was hard to not to be excited this year as the breeding got under way at the start of May. Whilst last year the terns took longer to prospect potential nest sites, eventually spreading out over all three of our protected colony areas, this year they settled in just one location. From our first egg being found on the 21st of May, just two weeks later we were counting around 300 active nests, making it the largest colony in the UK in 2022. This is compared to a peak count of 116 nests at the same site last year! The excitement started to spread as we realised that we might have a mega year on our hands.
When managing several colonies there is always a difficult choice to be made because resources are limited, especially when it comes to the time of the volunteers and Field Officers. In many years the colony with the largest number of nests is prioritised as the one which receives the most protection, although a presence is still maintained at all sites. This is difficult because every breeding pair counts when it comes to little terns, with a potential for two or three fledglings which may live for two decades and have many more offspring over that lifespan. It was a relief this year to be able to put everything into one site, allowing us to have a more of a presence to deter predators and egg thieves, as well as to engage with the public on the beach.
A cabin was brought down to the site for all our amenities, with solar powered lights for night shifts and a generator for charging equipment. This was a great place to get out of the weather, especially with the extreme heat we have had so far this year, as well as for observing the colony. From my experiences last year out at night in a tent, which flapped uneasily in the wind, the cabin made the night shifts almost luxurious in comparison.
The first hatching date approached in mid-June with eager anticipation, as well as an increase in nerves. In previous years kestrels have been a large cause of mortality for younger chicks and fledglings, and on occasion decimated the colony. For example, a report from 2001 when the little terns nested at Great Yarmouth states that kestrels took a total of 526 chicks! Whilst we have been doing work on diversionary feeding to try and provide local kestrels with alternative food sources, a determined adult will continue to go after the terns despite our best efforts.
The first tern chicks were sighted on the 14th of June and the weeks went by with only glimpses of kestrels, which luckily didn’t show interest in the colony. This did not stop the terns giving them hassle! A hobby started visiting regularly, trying to take adults and chicks, but the sheer number of little terns watching for predators and willing to mob them was enough to deter it on most occasions. This confidence lessened as the terns began to leave, and unfortunately for a few stragglers remaining towards the end of July, the hobby was much more successful.
High spring tides can also be a challenge for the little terns, especially combined with strong north and easterly winds coming off the North Sea. Nests can be moved a small amount at a time, so long as we make sure to replicate the pattern of stones around the nest, but if the tide is high enough it can wipe out a large percentage of the colony. Luckily, we had no incidents where the nests were at risk this season, with the highest tides not coinciding with strong winds.
Public engagement on the beach was also very positive this year, and this is a key part of our work in making people more aware of beach-nesting birds on the coast and educating them about responsible dog walking. I had some great conversations with those who knew about the birds already and many who were seeing them for the first time, and it was rewarding to be able to use scopes to allow adults and children to see the chicks up close. Dog owners were more than happy to put their pets on leads, showing that effective signage and friendly engagement can lead to positive behavioural changes.
Little terns also need plentiful stocks of small fish in shallow water near to the colony, and this seemed to be no problem for them this year as they were constantly flying to and from the sea with fish for their growing young.
It seemed like the stars aligned for this year’s season, and the full scale of what the terns had accomplished became apparent as the fledgling numbers built up on the shore. Our fledgling count was a whopping 585 on the 14th of July, and this is the lower estimate, with a potential for between 650- 700 leaving the site overall.
This year was also productive for our ringed plovers, with a total of 17 nests and 18-25 fledged across our sites. Usually, plover nests are spread out along the coastline, but many choose to nest within our fencing as they are much less likely to be disturbed. For rogue pairs outside our main fence, we can put up some posts with a bit of rope and cross our fingers, and this year we had eggs successfully hatching from just such a nest! We also had two oystercatchers and three avocets fledge from our Suffolk site.
Another joy of the season was watching a pair of plover chicks grow up into fledglings which had become habituated to our presence around the cabin, and on a night shift they often would run around my feet as I sat out in a camping chair!
In a year when there has been lots of bad news, especially with bird flu and how it has affected our struggling bird populations, it is a relief to be able to share something positive. Although every year is different, we are all hoping that this is the beginning of a trend where we can start stabilising or even increasing the numbers on the East Coast and the U.K.
Once again this has only been possible thanks to a truly incredible team of volunteers and staff, an extremely supportive local community, and the funding and support of Natural England and Great Yarmouth Borough Council.
Blog by Leigh Lock, RSPB Project Development Manager
The global and national threats to seabirds are widely recognised and much focus understandably links the status of seabirds with the state of our seas which is where most seabirds spend most of their time. But what about the state of the ‘land’ where seabirds spend the breeding season – a critical phase of their lifecycle? As a land-based observer of birds on the coast for decades, the growing pressure on breeding seabird sites has been a major concern and I feel we have reached a tipping point where if we don’t act now there will be no safe nesting space left for seabirds in some areas in the future.
Therefore, I was excited by the prospect of Seabird Conservation Strategies being developed within all four UK counties by government – each will set out the strategic needs of our seabird species and set out a route map for their recovery. This process in England has been led by DEFRA and NE. But I wanted to make sure that the current state of seabird colonies in England was reflected in this process and that the thoughts and concerns of those most close to the sites – the site managers, conservation officers etc responsible for these areas– were captured. So I contacted as many of those key people around the coast as possible to gather views on pressures impacting on seabird colonies. This is probably the first time such an assessment has been made. Much of this information gathered was necessarily subjective, being based on the opinions of the site managers, and others. However, expert judgement provided by the site managers most familiar with the sites, and their issues, constitutes the best available evidence on issues affecting England’s breeding seabirds.
The process does present a ‘ground truthing’ to compare with other available data sources so that all the available information together can be used as ‘weight of evidence’ to identify the main issues and develop solutions to them. Working closely with colleagues within NE, we then looked to align this rather broad-brush assessment of pressures on colonies with other data sources being carried out to inform other areas of the strategy.
Information was gathered on 222 natural sites (i.e., excluding urban gulls) and covering 24 seabird species – this representing the vast majority of England’s seabirds. Pressures were assigned to predefined categories including disturbance, habitat loss, predation, invasive species, disease, and control. Note that the assessments were carried out before the widespread and serious impacts of Avian Influenza (AI) were recorded in England in 2022.
Overall, the most widespread was disturbance (see below), with both habitat loss and predation impacting on over 50% of the sites. The other pressures were recorded at far less sites, although their impacts at individual sites could be very significant (e.g., invasive species on islands). There are plenty of discussion points emerging from this but below I have pulled out just three.
1. The widespread impacts of disturbance
Disturbance is the most widely reported pressure affecting England’s breeding seabirds impacting on 89% of the coastal sites, all sites supporting species like little tern and Sandwich tern, and 100% of English SPAs with breeding seabird features. Site managers see disturbance as THE rapidly growing issue, and human recreational disturbance at coastal sites is predicted to increase. Disturbance of nesting seabirds is caused by a range of recreational activities – beachgoers, dogwalkers and recreational fishers on land, and recreational watercraft such as jet skis, paddleboarders from the sea. Although disturbance is particularly an issue for ground-nesting birds such as terns and gulls at soft coast sites, I was also surprised how widely it was reported at cliff colonies and even offshore islands where birds vulnerable to disturbance from the sea. Disturbance at nest sites can have significant negative impacts on seabird breeding success through increased exposure of eggs and young to predation and the elements and can lead to the abandonment of nest sites and even entire colonies.
What I see are overstretched, under resourced conservation organisations trying to manage coastal sites where nature conservation should be the priority, but recreational interests prevail. Many areas have wardens to ‘protect’ nesting birds and engage with the public. But without zonation policies and legislation to restrict certain activities, on-site teams of staff and volunteers face an uphill battle, and the birds using these sites face a bleak future.
2. Sea level rise and coastal erosion present an existential threat to some of England’s most important seabird colonies.
Within England, most seabird sites occur on ‘soft coast’ sites – nearshore islands, salt marshes, lagoon islands and shingle banks. These habitats are under massive pressure and the reduction in size and quality of nesting habitat is the second most widespread pressure in England.
Without intervention, 2,000 Ha of protected coastal habitats is predicted to be lost in England by 2060 with even greater areas being functionally lost as breeding habitat due to regular flooding. Previously, these losses were mainly from development and land claim, but the key future threats to coastal habitats are from climate change-related sea level rise, coastal erosion, and coastal squeeze.
Mean sea levels in the UK have already risen by approximately 17 cm since the start of the 20th century and climate predictions show that they will continue to rise under all emissions scenarios until at least the year 2100. Increases in sea level rise are difficult to predict but are likely to be greatest in southern and eastern England where some of the largest colonies are. Rising sea levels mean that more coastal seabird breeding habitat will be lost, and the risk of intermittent flooding of nest sites is also increased. In addition to mean sea level rise, the risks of extreme sea levels and flooding are compounded by increases in storm events. Species that nest on the ground in sand and shingle habitats, such as terns and gulls, are particularly at risk, as large areas of these types of habitats can be lost rapidly with only minor increases in sea level. Many current breeding sites for terns and gulls on beaches and low-lying near-shore islands which are likely to become unsuitable or be lost entirely within the next 10 years. Little terns are particularly at risk because they tend to nest just above the high-water mark and in recent years high proportions of the UK’s little tern nests have been flooded out during spring tides and storm surges.
Short term fixes are in place at many sites. Habitat management to keep sites open, recharge of shingle islands to raise their levels above highest tides but longer-term measures are required to ensure that seabirds have safe nesting sites for future decades not just the next few years. This involves factoring seabird breeding habitat into multi-stakeholder strategic management planning eg Shoreline Management Plans (SMPs), Nature Recovery Networks (NRNs), Local Nature Recovery Strategies (LNRS)) and the implementation of the government’s 25-year Environment Plan. Breeding seabirds should be considered in full as part of these overarching plans and programmes, to ensure that existing breeding sites are adequately managed, and new breeding habitat is created and maintained, and linked to funding streams like Biodiversity Net Gain.
Beneficial use of dredged sediment can be used more widely to provide habitat for nesting seabirds and provide natural sea defences – here 50,000 cubic metres of sediment delivered through @ProjectLOTE working with Harwich Haven Authority, EA and the landowner supports the most important little tern colony in Essex (c) JPullen
3. Avian Influenza and the in-combination effects.
As mentioned above, the assessment was carried out last year before the impacts of AI were recorded in England this summer. Disease was not noted as a significant pressure and has not really impacted on seabirds since botulism on gulls in the past. But the impacts of AI in 2022 have been severe – impacting significantly on the largest UK and England colonies of both roseate and sandwich terns – Coquet and Scolt Head Islands respectively -with 1000s of dead breeding adults and large-scale breeding failure at these colonies. we await a full assessment of the impact of AI on seabirds in 2022 and how it might impact in the future.
But think of the conditions under which AI was able to make such an impact. The ‘in combination’ effects of habitat loss, predation, disturbance have pushed seabirds to the edge – habitat loss squeezing seabirds into fewer and fewer suitable areas, which then become honey pots for predators, and even these few special sites coming under the unbearable pressure of disturbance. All our eggs in fewer and fewer baskets. And then a disease comes along which thrives in conditions where it can spread rapidly amongst individuals in closely packed colonies.
To have seabird populations that can be resilient to AI and other diseases, we need more space for them to nest safely, allowing more colonies to thrive, and allowing more mobility from site to site to respond to changes in local conditions. Building resilience to disease and other pressures, requires spreading the risk – more and bigger sites, better managed. For this we need to rethink how our coast is managed.
The full report is on the documents page of this website.
Lock, L., Donato, B., Jones, R., Macleod-Nolan, C. 2022 England’s breeding seabirds: A review of the status of their breeding sites and suggested measures for their recovery. RSPB and Natural England report.
The report highlights the most important sites and actions for the recovery of seabirds in England.
The recommendations from this report on site management have been incorporated into a wider set of recommendations covering the full suite of seabird ecology -under four categories -breeding, feeding, surviving and knowledge. These recommendations have been made by NE to DEFRA to inform the further development of the England Seabird Conservation Strategy and the implementation of the 25 Year Plan. The Strategy should be available early in 2023.
Through ProjectLOTE we will continue to advocate for these changes and work with stakeholders all-round the coast to deliver what we can to help seabirds.
There are probably few more committed and enthusiastic workers than those managing seabird colonies and they are doing a brilliant job holding the line against growing pressures from all directions. But they need help. For all the above reasons, the England Seabird Conservation Strategy couldn’t come at a better time, and we must all hope that it brings a step change in the priority and resources allocated to management of seabird colonies in England. Over to you DEFRA.
Thanks to all those who contributed information towards this assessment.
Good luck to all of you with your challenges ahead.
Blog by David Mason, National Trust Suffolk and Essex Coast Ranger for Northey Island
Much of the saltmarsh at Northey Island is in poor health, eroding due to climate change and rising sea levels. Improving the condition of the saltmarsh will help to limit the impacts of climate change and make space for nature to thrive.
Creating new saltmarsh
The South East Embankment is in poor condition, regularly being overtopped by high tides. In the coming years we plan to create new saltmarsh by removing sections of this embankment, as we did at the south of the island in 2019, in a process called managed realignment. In preparation for this, in 2022 we are excavating new creeks in the East Field. This will help create healthy saltmarsh when we breach the embankment in the next few years by bringing silt and seed into the former field and allowing it to deposit and build up along the banks.
On the face of it creating saltmarsh might appear simple. Remove the sea walls to let in the tide and allow the tide and natural processes to deposit silt and seeds to grow new habitat. This however is only the visible part of it. Species and habitat monitoring and satisfying the regulatory bodies; translocation of protected species and creation of compensatory habitat; gaining funding from internal and external national and international funding bodies and reporting to them; analysis of the expected natural processes, careful design of the new infrastructure and navigating the marine regulatory process; moving existing infrastructure; ongoing monitoring to measure the effects of the changes; managing contractors, staff and volunteers; and explaining it all to members of the public and colleagues: all these factors and more go into Saltmarsh protection and re-creation.
This video gives an overview of the site and project aims.
In February a surge tide came over the South East Embankment and flooded part of the island.
This demonstrates why we need to consider how we manage Northey Island in the face of sea level rise and climate change. The overtopping of the embankments is not uncommon, happening at least annually and the frequency will increase into the future.
The area of water gives a rough idea of where the tide will come to when the embankment is realigned. As sea levels rise further the new saltmarsh will progress even further onto the land. The water has now receded but is a reminder of why we continue to do our work at Northey Island.
Removing overhead powerlines.
Since the last blog there have been a few changes on site. Perhaps the biggest is the removal of the power lines that crossed the fields and the burying of new cables to the houses. Some of these power poles were in areas that will become saltmarsh. This has made a great difference to the landscape and will allow more safe access for birds flying into the fields, including the Brent Geese that come in during the winter to roost and feed. We have left some poles in place, cut down in height, and plan to install nesting boxes to the tops of the poles in the hope of enticing oystercatchers and other estuary birds to breed here.
As small cogs in that project machine at Northey Island, the volunteers and I have been supporting this work.
The Essex and Suffolk National Trust Volunteers helped to paint the new hide which looks out over this area. They also weeded and mulched new hedging, watered new plants around the pond in the dry weather in early spring and cleared up a large amount of litter from the foreshore, including the flotsam and jetsam brought onto the island by the surge tide. They have also helped to prepare the ground for a new footpath through the fields to the hide.
Marsh harriers are regularly seen over the saltmarsh and a variety of birds have been using the area around the new scrape near the hide including yellow wagtail, shelduck, snipe, little egret, curlew, lapwing, teal, mallard, and shoveler. Cuckoos and whitethroat can be heard through the summer and Brent geese roost on the grass fields during the winter. Hopefully there will be plenty to see, looking over the developing saltmarsh, when the hide is open to the public. The hedges and grassland are alive with butterflies and walking along the access road in June and July surrounded by clouds of Meadow Browns feeding on the privet is mesmerising.
A new freshwater pond has been created near the hide which will provide a more stable and favourable home for the water voles that currently reside in an unsustainable area. Once new pond side vegetation is fully established the plan is to translocate the voles to their new home. Diving beetles, water boatmen, pond skaters and dragonflies are already colonising these areas.
Improved resilience to change
Further locally dredged sediment has also been placed in the north-west of the island to raise up the saltmarsh. This will protect saltmarsh in this area, avoiding new channels being formed and reducing higher water flows over the saltmarsh which cause erosion and vegetation loss. This work has allowed further sediment to be deposited in the saltmarsh by the tides, building up the marsh and allowing saltmarsh plants to regenerate. This is improving diversity and creating rare upper saltmarsh where the marsh transitions into the terrestrial land.
A section of bank has been reinstated at the north of the Island which has a shallower profile that will be better able to cope with overtopping by high tides, allowing water to run off without damaging the bank. This will help to protect the north of the island as sea levels rise. Topsoil will be spread to allow it to revegetate quickly.
While patrolling the site and talking to visitors, answering email enquiries, and even commissioning the signs from the printer, explaining the aims and progress of the project to visitors and the local community is an important part of my role. The project featured in the National Trust member’s magazine reaching more than 5 million members. The Northey Island website has also been updated with project developments. https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/northey-island
Blog by Louisa Claxton, RSPB Conservation Intern
In March of this year, I started on an exciting new journey with RSPB Old Hall Marshes, as the conservation intern. Old Hall Marshes is situated on the Blackwater Estuary, it is comprised of ancient coastal grazing marsh and agriculturally improved grassland with reedbed and some scrubby areas.
Grazing is an important part of managing the reserve is to keep the sward short which benefit breeding lapwing, their grazing pattern also has some great benefits for our redshanks by creating tussocks to build their nests inside.
This means that it is currently an exciting time for everybody on the reserve. Chicks are hatching left right and centre, with fluffy lapwing, avocet and redshank chicks plodding about. Only a month ago I saw my first ever avocet chick, now I have counted over thirty-seven on site. Another highlight for me so far was coming across a redshank nest with four babies huddled together inside, amazing.
Lapwings are a priority species on the reserve and are intensely monitored during the breeding season. We have two agriculturally improved wader fields, our primary wader field Bale and our secondary wader field Salcott. Since my arrival in March The reserve warden, Neil Lincoln and I have been monitoring lapwing nest and chick numbers daily on Salcott field. This involved scoping sitting lapwing from the seawall and directing the other person to the nests with questionable hand signals on my part. We then staked near the nests, assigned it a number, and recorded the number of eggs and GPS location. This field has shown to be successful for lapwing, from thirteen nests around fifteen chicks have been seen recently and many off these are almost fledged.
The important task of monitoring lapwing nests on our primary field, bale field is done solely by one of our dedicated volunteers. Between the start of April and the end of May they recorded sixty-six nests and there are still more to be discovered.
Bale field is ideal for breeding waders. A wind pump and drainable pipes maintain correct water levels for feeding chicks throughout the spring, and its permanent electric fence provides freedom from hungry badgers and foxes. Last year before I arrived, some exciting work was carried out by the European Union funded LIFE on the Edge project, with the creation and reprofiling of footdrains and raising of bunds to hold back more water. This has made this field even more attractive to breeding waders this year by holding water at different and variable depths across this field, opening up lots of feeding and foraging areas for young chicks. Further work is planned this autumn, which will be exciting.
I am continually astonished and humbled by the level of biodiversity and the endangered species that flock to this site, seeing beautiful wildlife every day, such as, marsh harriers, cuckoos, egrets and many species of invertebrates is a privilege. I have enjoyed every minute of my internship here so far and have already gained lots of experience and skills in conservation. I am excited for what the rest of the internship will bring.
Blog by Steve Rowland, RSPB England, Area Manager Norfolk and Lincolnshire
Sometime in the 1990’s and I was on a birding trip to Holland with some friends, we’d been taken by some Dutch birders to Beech wood. The canopy was that luminous green that you only get for a few weeks in Spring, and somewhere out of sight we could hear the calls of a Black Woodpecker echoing through the trees. I remember all of us tensing up, this was a bird we all really wanted to see and had managed to miss on previous visits. Suddenly the woodpecker flew into view and the reason for its calls followed it in the form of a pursuing Goshawk. For what felt like couple of minutes but, was probably only a few seconds we watched these two birds chase each other before they both disappeared back through the curtain of Beech leaves and all was quiet again.
It was experiences like this that led me to visit Holland for three springs in a row in the 1990's. With friends I would make the short ferry crossing from my then home in Kent to France and the easy drive up to motorway to Holland, where we would then have a long weekend of full-on Spring birding around the Oostvaardersplassen. I remember that we were blown away by the brilliant birding that we experienced and the scale of some of the habitats and we left thinking that the Dutch had it sorted in how they looked after their environment.
Roll forwards a couple of decades and this Spring I found myself back in Holland on a work study tour with colleagues from the RSPB and National Trust. Our first stop was the island of Texel where on an early morning walk through the dunes I saw a Goshawk, triggering memories of my earlier visits to Holland. Later that day the group enjoyed brilliant views of our first Bluethroats of the trip and as before the quality of the birding experience blew folk away.
On our first afternoon we gathered by the side of a marsh with the splendid name of Utopia. Our host talked to us knowledgably about just one of the challenges of managing land for nature on this agricultural island. He explained that as the dikes [seabanks] are built higher in response to rising sea levels, an especially big deal for the Dutch where half the country is below sea level, the greater weight of water behind the raised seabanks causes increased water pressure and seepage through and under the seabanks and into the fields creating more saline conditions, forcing the islands farmers to trial growing salt resistant varieties of potatoes. As we found more than once during our tour, an action to remedy an environmental problem initiated by human action would often result in new problems to tackle.
To get to the island of Texel we had to drive past mile after mile of intensively farmed fields, many of these were covered in Tulips, glowing orange, yellow, pink, purple and orange, psychedelic stripes across the landscape causing you to reach for your sunglasses. It was striking that there was no edge habitat around the fields, none of the headlands that we are familiar with in the UK. Not only does this mean there is a shortage of wildlife habitat in these areas, but it also became apparent in conversations with our hosts, that during the Dutch Covid lockdowns there was also a shortage of places for people to go for walks in the countryside with many resorting to visiting nature reserves creating extra pressure on these, but paradoxically leading to an increase in Dutch nature conservation organisations membership numbers.
One of the things that struck us when visiting some of the Dutch nature reserves was the scale of them and the amount of money that had been spent on creating habitats. Sometimes this work was driven by European law requiring compensatory habitats to be created where they were being lost elsewhere. The ability to give large areas to nature in this densely populated country also in part seemed to be due to the fact that there was "new land" to use, land which had once been part of the Wadden Sea Europe's most important area of intertidal habitats stretching along the North Sea coast from Holland through Germany to Denmark. It was sobering to be told that today perhaps only a third of the original extent of the Wadden Sea’s intertidal habitats are left, the rest having been taken for sea defences, agriculture and the creation of the large freshwater lakes of the IJsselmeer and Marker Wadden. Creating these large freshwater lakes in areas which were once part of the sea has created environmental challenges, but have also provided some space for habitat creation, but importantly not the replacement of the intertidal habitats that would once have been there.
To see one approach the Dutch have taken to creating breeding habitat for coastal birds we drove to Lelystad and boarded the Tall Ship Abel Tasman joining day trippers, scientists, and volunteers for the 40-minute trip out to the new sand sculpted islands in the middle of the Marker Wadden. These low-lying sandy islands cost about £70 million Euros to construct and have so far been a great success attracting nesting Terns, Kentish Plovers and lots of visitors. On our visit on a cold grey spring day, we were struck by the number of Bearded Tit’s in the new reedbeds on the island and the many shallow lagoons that had been created one of which was temporary home to a Black Winged Stilt. There were also some innovative looking hides, with a very striking tower hide giving great views across this new man-made landscape and an interesting sunken hide giving you knee level views of the local Avocets. These islands are a well monitored experiment, so far they have managed to remain free of ground predators and with good populations of insects to feed the birds. The next challenge will be what nature will do in reaction to their creation, already Willow trees are colonising the new islands, if the aim is to keep the breeding terns and shorebirds the management approach will need to find a way to stop the islands becoming covered in Willow scrub.
During our week we learnt a bit more about the challenges that the Dutch face in their man-made landscape to keep wildlife habitats in equilibrium, whether in response to climate change, increased human demands on the landscape or an increase in predators attracted to islands of abundance in an intensively managed agricultural landscape. We also saw the can-do approach the Dutch bring to some of their problems whether that be the sand sculpted islands on the Marker Wadden or at Balgzand where on the edge of an industrial estate we stood with the Natuurmonumenten warden in a tower hide that looked over a large, raised island. The island was edged by crumbling 10-metre-high man-made cliffs. This island had been made to compensate for the loss of nesting seabird habitat elsewhere and had been constructed out of low-level contaminated waste, a cost-effective use of this locally generated material with a hoped for added environmental benefit.
On the island’s flat top, a pair of Little Ringed Plovers displayed over Oystercatchers and Black Headed Gulls, we were told that soon Terns would return to prospect this raised island for nest sites. So far so good, the feral cats that have proved such a problem elsewhere can’t access the ground nesting birds, but the crumbling cliffs are no barrier for Brown Rats which have colonised the island and last Spring ate their way through the nesting seabirds, their eggs and chicks. It isn't possible to trap or poison the rats so a hunter has been employed to shoot them, it remains to be seen if this will make a serious dent in the rodent population. Another island is planned to follow the same design, our host said that this might be lower but have a metal skirt around its edge to prevent predators accessing it.
On our last day in Holland, we make one final stop by the side of the road that edges the Oostvaarderplassen, a vast wetland complex and site of an experiment in re-wilding that has been influential in developing new approaches to nature conservation across Europe. For several minutes our car passes alongside some large freshwater lakes over which are countless Little Gulls and Black Terns hawking for insects. We pull off at a parking space and watch a White-Tailed Eagle fly across a dried-out marsh.
This eagle is part of recent increase in this species population in north-west Europe, originally driven by the growth of the German population, it was this man driven landscape experiment that helped them colonise the Netherlands. Stretching into the distance beyond the fence in front of us half of the Oostvaarderplassen has been at the centre of a re-wilding experiment, this at one time led to a huge amount of dead livestock being left in the landscape for scavengers to eat including young White-Tailed Eagles whose survival rates dramatically increased which in time led to an increase in the Dutch breeding population.
The wetland in front of us was not dry because of drought, but because the scientists who run the reserve have switched the wetland off for three years to try and refresh the wetland habitats with plant material, so that when they re-flood these marshes there will be more food for the insects at the bottom of the food chain, which in turn will lead to more food for birds and other wildlife. An un-expected consequence of this drying out has been to push wetland birds out across Holland, with new Spoonbill colonies springing up across the country as a response to this most recent human intervention in the landscape.
Looking across the Oostvaarderplassen as an eagle flaps by is not a bad way to end a trip to Holland. To quote Sam Hamm "talk provoking is thought provoking" and we had much to talk and think about on our weeks study tour. In particular we were struck by the fact that the Dutch are facing many similar problems to us the effects of climate change, recreational use of the countryside, predation, and pressures from industry. They have a can-do approach to working at scale to construct new landscapes such as the amazing sand-scaped islands in the Marker Wadden. But finding a new ecological equilibrium in such an artificial landscape isn't easy and the landscapes that existed before were of huge now gone ecological significance.
All of us I think came away thinking about things a little differently, particularly the need to work at scale and just get things done. As my colleague Ben from the National Trust said, "at the end of the day it all comes down to graft". I returned home grateful for the chance to meet with some inspirational Dutch colleagues who shared their experience in delivering nature conservation and also some of the challenges that they face and often share with us here in the UK. I was certainly inspired and came away with new perspectives to help me with the hard graft of giving nature a helping hand in my corner of Norfolk and Lincolnshire.
This LIFE on the Edge networking trip to the Netherlands was made possible due to the EU LIFE programme of the European Union.
Photo credits: Oystercatcher by Katie Nethercoat (rspb-images.com)