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25 May 2018

Rare eggs hatch after spring flooding rescue

A total of 15 godwit eggs rescued from muddy farmland in East Anglia have hatched successfully so far.

Conservationists, trying to protect the rare black-tailed godwit, teamed up with local farmers to save the eggs, which were found in poor condition due to heavy spring downpours.

Collecting eggs for rear and release, known as head-starting, was already planned in the area as part of a five-year EU funded project. When flooding forced wild birds to nest away from the safety of their wetland habitat in the Nene Washes, the project team launched a rescue operation to help even more eggs.

Rebecca Lee, Principal Species Conservation Officer at WWT, welcomed the news. She said:

“Conditions were so bad that we were concerned that they might not survive. A number of the eggs that we did manage to collect were in such bad condition that they resembled muddy potatoes. Thankfully, the majority of these eggs have shown signs of life and many have hatched successfully despite our reservations.

“Flooding forced our ground-nesting birds off important nesting areas and they have been laying their eggs on nearby farmland where mud is widespread and tall crops can hide potential predators. Thankfully we have been able to work together with the landowners in the area to avoid the worst outcome.”

A total of 32 eggs were collected from farmland as part of the pioneering nature-conservation scheme Project Godwit – a partnership between WWT and RSPB, which aims to restore the UK breeding population.

Hannah Ward, RSPB Project Manager at Project Godwit, added:

“The decision to intervene was not taken lightly. The extreme weather and the dire state of these precious, rare eggs meant they had almost no chance of survival in the wild. Luckily, as our project already includes helping godwits by collecting eggs and head-starting chicks, we were in a position to also help these extra eggs.

“With less than fifty pairs of godwits breeding in the UK, every egg that successfully hatches could be critical for the future of the population. This was a real team effort and we thank the farmers who worked closely with us to rescue the eggs.”

The Nene and Ouse Washes in the Fens are the two main breeding sites for black-tailed godwits in the UK.

Conservationists have been using a technique known as head-starting – raising young birds from eggs collected in the wild – to help boost the UK godwit population. Their numbers at the Ouse Washes are now critically low but it’s hoped that head-starting in combination with the creation of wetland habitat could restore the population to the numbers previously seen in the 1970s.

The Washes were created in the 17th century to be a flood storage area, protecting surrounding farmland and residential areas from flooding when river levels are high. They also provide internationally important wetland habitat for an array of wildlife.

The change in climate, as well as pressures from increased run-off from housing developments upstream, means excess water is flooding the Washes in spring and early summer when ground-nesting birds use the area. WWT and the RSPB are helping to address this by providing alternative nesting sites – flood-free areas of wetland habitat created adjacent to the Washes.

Experts have established that the provision of more sustainable drainage systems along the catchment area, such as in Peterborough, would help wetlands sites like the Ouse and Nene Washes.

Head-starting is just one aspect of Project Godwit which also focuses on monitoring, habitat management and trialling conservation techniques.

Project Godwit is a partnership between RSPB and WWT with major funding from the EU LIFE Nature Programme, HSBC’s 150th Anniversary Fund, Natural England and the Heritage Lottery Fund, through the Back from the Brink programme and Leica UK. The project aims to secure the future of breeding black-tailed godwits in the UK.

Conservationists are encouraging birders to look out for these special birds. Sightings can be registered at projectgodwit.org.uk