Birds destroyed by global changes

CLIMATE change over the past 30 years has had a devastating effect on Cambridgeshire s wildlife. In the county, recognised as England s most important area for wading birds, nests are being destroyed by flooding. LESLEY INNES discovered how the numbers of

CLIMATE change over the past 30 years has had a devastating effect on Cambridgeshire's wildlife. In the county, recognised as England's most important area for wading birds, nests are being destroyed by flooding.

LESLEY INNES discovered how the numbers of some of Britain's rarest birds are falling because of one of the region's biggest environmental challenges.

ABOUT 1,000 pairs of waders and nesting birds have lost their eggs or newly-hatched chicks after flooding wiped out this year's nesting season in the Fens.

Among this number are some of the UK's rarest birds which make their homes on the Ouse Washes on the Cambridgeshire/Norfolk borders.

Heavy spring rain put virtually the whole 20-mile long reserve under water, and not for the first time. The RSPB says it is happening more and more and is one of the region's biggest environmental challenges.

"Almost all the breeding black-tailed godwits and three quarters of the snipe in Britain breed on the Ouse Washes," said spokesman Ciaran Nelson. "It's the most important lowland site in the UK for breeding snipe."

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The charity's Fens area manager, Graham Elliott, said: "Cambridgeshire is by far England's most important county for wading birds nesting on wet meadows.

"This year's floods show how important it is to create large areas of new wet meadows for breeding waders as near to the Ouse Washes as soon as possible."

In 1972, there were 65 pairs of black-tailed godwits breeding in the area. This year that number has fallen to just four pairs and these will have lost their nests.

The area is also home to redshank and lapwing. These ground nesting birds lay their eggs from April and the most critical months are May and June.

The Ouse Washes were built by the engineers who drained the Fens 300 years ago to act as a reservoir to hold excess water between the tidal Ouse, the Delph and the Old Bedford Rivers.

For years, the washes worked well, becoming an internationally important habit for waders and migrating waterfowl from all over Europe.

But since the 1970s the UK's changing climate has led to more regular summer floods and longer, deeper winter flooding which, in turn, has resulted in poor years for ground nesting birds.

Conservation groups have been working with the Environment Agency for many years to find a solution.

Ministers have agreed to fund the purchase of land for habitat creation outside the Ouse Washes to provide alternative homes for these birds.

Pat Stones, the agency's Ouse Washes habitat creation project officer, said: "Spring flooding is bad for the birds of the Ouse Washes. The Environment Agency recognises this problem and we're working hard to create new habitat safe from flooding for these important bird populations.

"The agency is planning engineering improvements to rivers in and near to the Ouse Washes to improve flood management and help wildlife."

Extensive flood risk management work has been carried out by the Environment Agency in the Ely Ouse catchment to compensate for the loss of wildlife habitat.

A series of conservation enhancements were made, including improving 150 metres of habitat at Ten Mile Bank and 50 metres of the cut off channel at Hilgay.

Eco-islands were installed within the river channel and fixed floating lily rafts and brushwood along the edge of the banks to provide shelter and spawning areas for fish and a variety of other wildlife, including water voles.

Otters have also returned to the county after a 15-year absence and have been found in East Cambridgeshire on the Great Ouse, Ouse Washes, Lark and Little Ouse and the uppermost reaches of the River Stour and Soham Lode.

The Wildlife Trust and Cambridgeshire Mammal Group are tracking the otters' progress with a series of five-yearly countywide surveys.

Ruth Hawksley, Cambridgeshire Mammal Group water for wildlife officer, said "It's brilliant that we've got a growing otter population in the county. With the help of local groups and landowners we plan to use the results to improve our rivers and riverside habitats for otters."

The National Trust has also been working at Wicken Fen to bring benefits to wildlife by extending the wetland over the next 100 years.

It is well underway with a project to buy 3,700 hectares of farmland to the south of the reserve to join it to the centre of Cambridge, creating a green lung for the city.

The whole area lies within the boundaries of the Swaffham Internal Drainage Board and could be restored by a combination of natural regeneration and the raising of water levels.

Unlike Wicken Fen today, which is managed intensively using traditional techniques, the aim for the restored land is to manage it much more extensively using herds of grazing animals as well as growing 'green crops' such as reeds and bio fuel.

A further 3,000 hectares of fenland habitat between Huntingdon and Peterborough is also being restored under the Great Fen Project.