Call to halt decline in wading bird population

GAMEKEEPERS are calling on action to halt a stark decline in Scotland’s threatened wading bird populations.
In decline: the distinctive call of the curlew, above, is is becoming rarer. Picture: ContributedIn decline: the distinctive call of the curlew, above, is is becoming rarer. Picture: Contributed
In decline: the distinctive call of the curlew, above, is is becoming rarer. Picture: Contributed

Keepers on Scotland’s moors fear the evocative call of the curlew could disappear if the Scottish government does not follow its lead on controlling predators, such as crows and foxes.

A survey by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) reveals dramatic falls in Scotland’s rare wader populations.

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The study taken between 1995 and 2011 shows lapwing numbers have fallen 56 per cent, causing major conservation concern.

The number of curlews have also plummeted 56 per cent in the same period, with golden plover numbers dipping by 18 per cent.

As the grouse season is about to begin next week, the Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA) believes the government needs to take decisive action now before it is too late for certain species.

They say gamekeepers on many grouse moors still house productive populations of wading birds while their decline accelerates elsewhere.

SGA chairman Alex Hogg said: “Proper grouse moor management, with rotational heather burning and the legal control of foxes, carrion crows, stoats and weasels has helped rare wading birds.

“The distinctive call of the Curlew is a common sound and keepers love seeing them as they go about their work.

“These latest figures are a real warning, though. If more grouse moors ceased for example, or more keepers were taken off the hill, who would protect these birds?

“On areas where wildlife is not being managed, the declines are rapid and scientists predict we will start to lose them from some key areas altogether.

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“A lot of public money has been handed out in the past for habitat management schemes but that money has been wasted because we have far less waders now. It should be a condition that those receiving public money should carry out proper predator control or the money should be returned.

“It is a duty of the government to find a solution to help vulnerable wildlife. We petitioned government on this years ago but nothing was acted upon. The fall in wader numbers has to be seriously looked at, and with some urgency.”

Lapwings are on the conservation red list, while amber-listed curlews and golden plover are regular breeding visitors to Scotland’s upland grouse moors.

A recent nine-year study by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust showed ground-nesting waders were breeding three times more successfully on grouse moors because of legal predator control by gamekeepers, which reduces the numbers of crows and foxes that predate nests.

This, the SGA claim, is further borne out at Langholm in the Borders where falls of 75 per cent in wader numbers were observed when gamekeepers were taken off the moor following the cessation of grouse shooting in 1995.

Declines in waders on non-keepered areas have been put down to predation, a forestation, agricultural intensification, loss of habitat and climate change.

Gamekeepers point to predation pressure as being the limiting factor with the biggest balance of scientific proof.

Despite predator control on areas managed for shooting, the number of carrion crows overall have been increasing since 1961 while fox numbers continue to rise.

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Protected Badgers, that predate nests, are increasing markedly and the newly published BTO Breeding Bird figures show a sharp increase in specialist predators.

Common buzzards have risen by 31 per cent in Scotland since 1995 and ravens have leapt up by 35 per cent.

Mr Hogg said: “We can bury our heads in the sand and blame climate change for everything or we can look at the problems immediately affecting our birds and deal with them.

“The government needs to look at what is causing these declines in our wading birds and act decisively. If they need to monitor these birds to see what is happening, they need to do so as soon as possible before there’s no way back.”