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Waterbirds in England respond to cold winter

Mixed Fortunes

Latest counts collected by Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) volunteers show the internationally important numbers of wildfowl and waders that use English wetlands in winter.

The severe conditions experienced in the 2010/11 winter, described in the latest Waterbirds in the UK report, show that wetlands in the UK can be especially important during harsh winters. During such winters, sites both inland and on the coast act as a refuge for birds forced out of frozen continental Europe.

At the five most important sites (The Wash, Ribble Estuary, Morecambe Bay, North Norfolk Coast, and Thames Estuary), WeBS volunteers counted 1.2 million wildfowl and waders. These numbers indicate how important it is that these coastal areas and others receive suitable protection and that the important waterbird communities continue to be monitored effectively.

The two largest inland wetlands, the Somerset Levels and the Ouse Washes, attracted especially large numbers of birds in the 2010/11 winter. At the Somerset Levels, over 50,000 Wigeon and 70,000 Lapwing were both exceptional peaks – tangible evidence of the importance of these sites as cold weather refuges, and the benefits of inland wetland habitat creation and management.Chas Holt, WeBS Organiser at the British Trust for Ornithology, said: “WeBS volunteers braved the freezing winter of 2010/11 to count England’s internationally important waterbird populations. We are indebted to their efforts. Against a recent history of population changes during milder winters, this fantastic effort is fundamental in helping to understand the response to periods of unexpectedly cold weather. The counts also contribute to the International Waterbird Census and thus help in the understanding of changes taking place across the wider world.”

Simon Wotton, Senior Conservation Scientist at RSPB said: “The results of the 2010/11 winter show how important protected areas are for the wintering waterbirds. The increased use of the Somerset Levels and Ouse Washes during this cold winter, where large areas are managed by conservation bodies including RSPB, Natural England and WWT, show how valuable well managed wetlands can be to birds who need a safe place to go when the continent freezes over. The latest figures highlight the importance of this long-running survey and the importance of volunteer surveyors.”David Stroud, Senior Ornithologist at Joint Nature Conservation Committee, said: “The events of the 2010/11 winter were a reminder that we need to co-operate internationally to ensure the effective conservation of these mobile waterbirds. Neighbouring countries are just a short flight away, and the UK needs to continue to work to ensure common approaches for waterbird conservation and management throughout their migratory ranges. Continued support for international treaties such as the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, the European Union’s Birds Directive and the Agreement on the conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds, is especially important.”

Allan Drewitt, Senior Ornithologist at Natural England said: “The evidence from the Wetland Bird Survey is invaluable. Results show the exceptional importance of England’s coasts and estuaries to birds and the vulnerability of wintering species to weather conditions. Information about bird numbers and how they are faring on our protected sites is essential, if we are to continue to look after them."

Richard Hearn, Head of Monitoring at Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, said: “The Wetland Bird Survey and other waterbird monitoring schemes have again demonstrated their worth by producing results that remind us of the continued importance of Britain and Ireland as a cold weather refuge for migratory waterbirds. It is essential that internationally important wetlands such as the Severn Estuary continue to provide the disturbance-free habitat that these species need to survive the harsh winters that some predict may become more frequent in the future.”

4th July 2014