WWT Godwit chick 'headstarting' represents UK first


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Black-tailed Godwit chicks have been hatched in captivity by conservationists for the first time in the UK.

In a process known as 'headstarting', the 26 hatched chicks will be hand-reared by conservationists until they are strong enough to be released back in to 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 Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT), known as Project Godwit.

The project aims to increase the number of young godwits that fledge from the birds' two primary British breeding grounds — the Ouse Washes and Nene Washes — through a variety of research and conservation initiatives.

Two subspecies of Black-tailed Godwit occur in the UK. Icelandic Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa islandica) is a fairly numerous passage migrant and winter visitor, but breeds only in Iceland. 'Continental' Black-tailed Godwits (L l limosa) breed across Europe and eastwards to Central Asia. It is the latter subspecies which maintains a tiny UK breeding population.

Populations of Continental Black-tailed Godwit are declining across Europe. Fewer than 60 pairs nest in the UK, almost all of which are on the fens of Cambridgeshire and west Norfolk, and their perilous position is exacerbated by poor breeding seasons. Breeding success is pivotal to the fortunes of the species as a whole, and it is hoped that headstarting may be an effective means of improving numbers.

Black-tailed Godwit
Continental Black-tailed Godwit (ssp limosa) is declining across Europe, and its UK population is perilously small (Photo: W.Schulenburg)

Headstarting has become renowned by its use in Far Eastern Russia, where it has been implemented to halt the decline of Spoon-billed Sandpiper. So far it has proven immensely successful for that species, and it is hoped that it will prove similarly prosperous for fenland Black-tailed Godwits.

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 wild nests in April, which were then safely incubated at WWT Welney on the Ouse Washes. 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.

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 proved a resounding success in Spoon-billed Sandpiper conservation (Photo: Ben Cherry/WWT)

Rebecca Lee, WWT Principal Conservation Breeding Officer, commented: "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 — 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."

Follow updates on Twitter: @projectgodwit

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The information in this article was believed correct at the time of writing. BirdGuides accepts no responsibility for errors, or for any consequences of acting on information in the article. The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily shared by BirdGuides Ltd.

hide section Reader comments (8)

What is the point of wasting money on headstarting Black Tailed Godwits in the UK? They are not critically endangered nor are they currently decreasing in the UK.

What WWT should use the money for is the provision of safe nesting areas in which the existing breeding population can successfully raise young, whether this is by effective predator control and land management or creating new breeding habitat.

You can headstart all you like but of the adults birds cannot raise young then in the end it is a pointless and expensive gimmick.
   Ian Bradshaw, 12/05/17 09:32Report inappropriate post Report 
Hi Ian,

You are absolutely right that habitat management and provision of safe nesting areas are vital for the future of the species, and that is already happening. WWT has created 114 hectares of habitat just off the Ouse Washes at Welney, safe from summer flooding, where black-tailed godwits are successfully breeding in the wild. RSPB has also created similar habitat adjacent to the Ouse Washes, and in recent years has created new wetland habitat at the Nene Washes, another...more more
   Hannah Ward, 12/05/17 14:53Report inappropriate post Report 
Hi Hannah! great stuff & glad to see the dedication to these superb waders,but are you "controlling" predator numbers at the breeding sites?! Corvids,Magpies foxes & badgers,etc etc will make short work of the nests of a meagre 3 pairs & all these species appear to be booming in East Anglia ATM; Good Luck Anyway;Adrian.
   Adrian, 12/05/17 16:35Report inappropriate post Report 
Thank you Hannah, I had no idea that the Limosa subspecies was in such decline. I thought they were still relatively common in the Low Countries despite polders being more intensively farmed these days. Is the Netherlands doing their bit as there must still be thousand of pairs breeding there?
   Ian Bradshaw, 14/05/17 08:42Report inappropriate post Report 
@Ian: Sadly the limosa subspecies are continuing to decline in the Netherlands, a recent paper by Kentie et al. 2016 estimates that numbers have fallen from 47,000 (38,000 – 56,000) pairs in 2007 to 33,000 (26,000 – 41,000) in 2015.

@Adrian: Our monitoring has told us that productivity is lower than it needs to be in order for the population to increase, though figures have been encouraging at WWT Welney where nine young fledged from three pairs in 2016. Boosting the number of...more more
   Hannah Ward, 17/05/17 16:55Report inappropriate post Report 

Glad to hear that predator control is being taken very seriously, for as #1 & #3 above point out, all the great habitat in the world will be to no avail if the eggs and young are being predated in large numbers. While exclusion fencing may allow the birds to hatch successfully, despite the best efforts of foxes, badgers, otters and the like, once the chicks are mobile they are vulnerable to both mammalian and avian predators.

So, which species are being controlled at Nene Washes and Welney - presumably foxes, corvirds and mustelids? However, if it is marsh harriers, badgers and otters that are predating large numbers then they are going to need all the headstarting they can get.

Good luck with boosting the breeding output of the godwits - careful brood management is key, as it's all about productivity in the end.
   KCOWIESON, 18/05/17 00:02Report inappropriate post Report 
This sounds like an excellent initiative. There is currently a curlew survey in north Wiltshire to try and estimate what was once a good-sized, but now depleted, breeding population. It is not looking good. Part of the problem for species recovery is that, whilst predation is a natural part of the cycle, its impact on small relict populations is so much greater than in larger populations. Therefore, anything that can be done to boost the local population to a level where predation returns to a "normal" part of the background is to be welcomed. Well done to the WWT and the RSPB for taking on this project. If successful, it could become a standard model for future safeguarding of vulnerable populations.
   Simon Tucker, 19/05/17 12:05Report inappropriate post Report 
Keith & Ed - that's enough for this thread now please. I suggest you contact each other privately if you wish to discuss off-topic matters further.
   Josh Jones (admin), 19/05/17 15:58

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