Spoon-billed sandpipers, brought to the UK from Far East Russia, have been moved out of quarantine into purpose built quarters at the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust in Gloucestershire.
The 13 birds will form the basis of a breeding population providing a safety net against extinction should the wild population continue its dramatic decline. It is intended that their descendents will be released into the wild.
There are thought to be fewer than 100 pairs of spoon-billed sandpipers left in the wild. Hunting and the destruction of stopover sites on the birds’ migration route have caused numbers to plunge by 90% in a decade. The breeding programme at WWT could save the species from extinction.
Nigel Jarrett, Head of Conservation Breeding at WWT, said: “These birds would normally range from the frozen Arctic to tropical coastal wetlands in South-East Asia and despite being held in unnatural surroundings they have done very well.
“The new site at WWT’s headquarters at Slimbridge is purpose-built and a little larger than the quarantine area. It is crucial we keep it warm because at this stage in the birds’ lives they’d normally be in the tropics.
“In some ways we’re going into the unknown now but every day that passes is a success. The priority is to keep the birds alive and healthy so that eventually they can breed.”
Their long and arduous expedition was backed by the RSPB and the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force which was established by the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership in December 2010.
Eggs found by the experts were hatched in special facilities on site and the young chicks transported to Moscow.
After a period in Moscow Zoo, the birds were flown to Heathrow then transferred inside cushioned and insulated boxes to quarantine buildings at Slimbridge.
They will receive 24-hour care inside the new area where CCTV cameras are enabling WWT staff to watch the birds constantly. Footage from the cameras is also being broadcast to public screens at WWT.
The spoon-billed sandpiper is an iconic bird for anyone interested in wildlife. Progress in attempts to save the bird is being followed by thousands of people worldwide.
The RSPB’s Andre Farrar said: “It’s clear that success, ultimately, must be judged in boosting the wild population. If the descendents of these birds make the return to the wild then we will know we have succeeded. But for now, we should celebrate a very significant milestone.”
Nigel Clark from the BTO, an expert on wading birds who also helped with the spoon-billed sandpipers’ transfer from Russia, said: “It was wonderful to see the birds for the first time. To release them into an environment that was completely new and watch them start to explore and feed, was one of those moments that convinces me that the project to save the spoon-billed sandpiper is really worthwhile. It is testament to the dedication of many people that these birds are now so strong and healthy.”