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RSPB Reserve Washout

Floods Wash Out Breeding Birds At Ouse Washes Cambridgeshire Nature Reserve Faces Dismal Year

Spring floods over the meadows at the RSPB`s Ouse Washes nature reserve will probably wipe out this year`s nesting season for wading birds. Potentially 1,000 pairs of wading birds may have been affected, though numbers of nests affected this year are not known as the flood happened before spring bird surveys.

An increase in spring and summer flooding since the mid seventies has led to frequent poor years for ground-nesting birds on this internationally important wildlife site. Happily there were no spring or summer floods in 2003, and the Ouse Washes had an outstanding breeding season for waders. [The Ouse Washes have one of the largest populations of breeding waders in lowland England, especially snipe, redshank, lapwing and the scarce black-tailed godwit. These are ground-nesting birds that nest from April, the critical months being May and June. Numbers of waders in 2003 were the highest total since 1993, for the whole of washes and the nature reserves of the RSPB, The Wildlife Trust for Cambridgeshire and the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust.]The RSPB`s Ouse Washes senior warden, Cliff Carson, said: Following two good breeding seasons, these floods will mean a dismal nesting season for birds. Ground nesting birds cannot cope with eggs and nests being covered by floodwater. It is deeply disappointing to see our hard work on the nature reserve wasted, having managed the Ouse Washes to provide the right conditions for birds. Floods have been the main cause for the collapse in the Ouse Washes breeding population of black-tailed godwits, which dropped from 65 pairs in 1972 to just four pairs last year. By contrast, thanks to good management and no spring/summer floods, black-tailed godwits are increasing at the RSPB`s Nene Washes nature reserve near Peterborough. Here some 40 pairs are present this year, up from 32 pairs in 2003. A programme of ringing birds has shown that the two populations are hardly linked; when godwit nests are flooded on the Ouse Washes they then try to nest on nearby arable fields, generally without much success.

[Several areas of the Ouse Washes have bank-to-bank flooding. The Earith (south) end of the Washes was flooded bank to bank initially. Flood levels have eased somewhat there but the main nesting areas in the middle of The Washes between Mepal and Welney are covered, having flooded all ground-nesting birds. Some, but not all, of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust reserve at Welney has been under water. The Ouse Washes are a 19 mile (30 km) stretch of seasonally floodedwet grassland between Denver and Earith, intersected by ditches which are noted for their aquatic flora and invertebrates. The Ouse Washes cover some 2,400 hectares, mostly in Cambridgeshire, partly in Norfolk. The RSPB manages 1227 hectares including 184 hectares owned by The Wildlife Trust, Cambridgeshire. Constructed during the 17th century, the primary function of the Ouse Washes is a winter flood storage reservoir for the waters of the River Ouse. It is the largest regularly flooded washland in Great Britain.]A partnership project between the Environment Agency, the RSPB and others has created 44 hectares of wet grassland on former arable fields outside but adjacent to the Ouse Washes. This may attract some birds displaced by floods on the Ouse Washes, but clearly birds from 2,400 hectares cannot pack into an area less than one fiftieth the size, says the RSPB. The RSPB`s Sarah Dawkins said: This year`s floods show how important it is to create new wet meadows for breeding waders near to the Ouse Washes. We would like to see much more habitat creation of this kind as soon as possible.

The Government has set standards for the condition of nationally and internationally important wildlife sites, which the Ouse Washes fail to meet, largely due to spring and summer floods. Discussions between Defra, the Environment Agency, the RSPB and others continue to seek a solution to the long-term challenges of a site which both has a flood storage role and a raft of conservation designations.

NB Breeding waders on the Ouse Washes 2003:

Lapwing 327 204 [highest figure since 1984]
Snipe 343 [highest total since 1990 272]
Black-tailed godwit 4 1
Redshank 443 333 [Highest ever recorded number of breeding redshanks (both all Ouse Washes and RSPB/Wildlife Trust reserve)].

4th July 2014