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12 May 2017

First chicks mark fresh future for rare fenland wading bird

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.

Black-tailed godwit chick by Bob Ellis/WWT

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.

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.

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.”

The godwit team with a newly hatched chick by Bob Ellis/WWT

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.

Black-tailed godwit chicks by Bob Ellis/WWT

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. We look forward to welcoming people and sharing this amazing story.”

Details of the Project Godwit guided tours can be found on our What’s on page here, places are limited so please contact the centre on 01353 960711 or email info.welney@wwt.org.uk to make sure you don’t miss out.

More information about this exciting project can be found at www.projectgodwit.org.uk.

Project Godwit is a partnership between RSPB and WWT with major funding from the EU LIFE Nature Programme, HSBC 150th Anniversary fund, Natural England and the Heritage Lottery Fund. The project aims to secure the future of black-tailed godwits in the fens.