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12 May 2017

Fenland chicks good for godwits

Posted in Latest news

In a UK first, 26 fluffy black-tailed godwit chicks have been hatched by conservationists in the Fens this week. The rare chicks will be hand-reared until they are strong enough to be released back into the wild.

It’s the first time that ‘headstarting’ has been used to help a species in decline in the UK and it marks the start of an innovative new partnership between the RSPB and WWT – Project Godwit.

Project Godwit aims to increase the number of young black-tailed godwits that fledge from the birds’ two main breeding grounds in the UK – the Ouse Washes and the Nene Washes – through a mix of research and conservation initiatives.

Adult black-tailed godwit (c) David Morris (RSPB)

Adult black-tailed godwit (c) David Morris (RSPB)

The black-tailed godwit could be at risk of global extinction in the near future, according to the IUCN. Fewer than 60 pairs nest in the UK and almost all of those can be found in the Fens meaning that breeding success in the area is pivotal to the fortunes of the species as a whole.

Rebecca Lee, WWT Principal Conservation Breeding Officer, said:

“We’re really excited to get underway with Project Godwit. Now the eggs have hatched, the staff at WWT Welney will have their hands full for the next few weeks as they care for the chicks.

“Headstarting young birds is a big intervention and it has already proved to be a huge help in the bid to save another species – the spoon-billed sandpiper – from extinction. It increases the number of young birds fledging from the breeding grounds, and it also gives us the opportunity to mark the chicks so we can follow them throughout their lives, giving us a crucial insight into their behaviour.

“Visitors to Welney will have the chance to hear about the project and see the chicks for themselves from Wednesday 17 May. Details of the special tours are online at www.wwt.org.uk/welney. We look forward to welcoming people and sharing this amazing story.”

The godwit team with a newly hatched chick (c) Bob Ellis

Hannah Ward, RSPB LIFE black-tailed godwit project recovery manager, said:

“With most of the UK’s black-tailed godwits making a home in the Fens, this region is vital to the quest to maintain and increase their numbers.

“The future of the species in the UK, and globally, is currently very uncertain and they are ‘red-listed’ on the UK Birds of Conservation Concern. Godwits nest on the ground so they’re susceptible to flooding in spring-time and vulnerable to predators.

“We are delighted to be starting this five year project with WWT, thanks to funding from the EU LIFE Nature programme, which will allow us to undertake research, habitat management, headstarting, and raise awareness of the species, with the ultimate aim of increasing the population of black-tailed godwits breeding in the UK.”

This summer is the first of five breeding seasons during which black-tailed godwits will be given a helping hand. Project Godwit staff collected 32 eggs from the wild in April, which were then safely incubated at WWT Welney on the Ouse Washes.

Now the chicks have hatched they will be reared by WWT staff to help them through their most vulnerable time, before they are released into the wild once they are close to fledging.

‘Headstarting’ has been used to increase the number of young spoon-billed sandpipers, another wading bird that is on the edge of extinction. In addition to the captive reared chicks, removing the eggs from the nest early during incubation maximises the chance that the parent birds will lay a second clutch and raise a second brood themselves.

More information is available at www.projectgodwit.org.uk.


  • Keith_Cowieson

    Not quite true to suggest that it is the 1st time that ‘head-starting’ has been used to help a species in decline in the UK. The recent cirl bunting project in Devon/Cornwall saw young birds taken from nests in Devon, reared in an aviary and then released in Cornwall. The translocation was necessary as the largely sedentary birds were felt to need a helping hand re-colonise former haunts after a long decline in the UK. Similarly, golden and white-tailed eagles have been taken from nests in Scotland and translocated to Ireland in a form of headstarting, and the same has happened with Scottish ospreys, Welsh red kites, English corncrakes etc etc

    And such brood management techniques are routine with continental Montagu’s and hen harriers where they are threatened by farming operations in arable fields.

    Nevertheless, this is a great project, well done all. Building upon the techniques developed here, perhaps we should try something similar for one of the UK’s greatest conservation issues and priorities – the decline of the curlew population?