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Emergency Action as Drought hits Marsh

The RSPB has been given emergency powers to pump water on to a drought-hit marsh in Kent, UK

Hundreds of birds faced starvation at the RSPB’s Elmley Marshes nature reserve on the Isle of Sheppey as two dry winters saw water levels tumble, robbing the fields of water and the birds of the invertebrates they needed to survive. The number of wading birds breeding at the RSPB reserve has plummeted over the last two years and this spring hit an all-time low. Those chicks that did hatch faced an early death from starvation. In desperation, the RSPB applied under new legislation for a temporary licence to pump water on to the marsh from a nearby creek. So severe is the problem that the Environment Agency agreed and granted the Society permission to take water from the creek for 28 days.Phil Burston, The RSPB’s senior water policy officer, said: In a normal year, we would be looking at 200 breeding pairs of lapwings at the RSPB’s Elmley Marshes reserve. As such, it is normally one of the most important wetlands in Britain, but last year there were 80 pairs and we now seem to be down to just 60. Even back in March and April the site looked like it would normally look in late July, water levels were that low and fields that dry. All that meant food was not available. We have seen adult birds starving and emaciated because they couldn’t find food. At the moment, most of the chicks aren’t going to survive.

Now though permission has been given to pump in water from a creek that runs alongside the RSPB nature reserve.Mr Burston said: The Environment Agency has been incredibly helpful in responding quickly to our application and agreeing to a temporary licence.

Harvey Bradshaw, the Environment Agency's Kent Area Manager, said: In this instance, we granted a 28-day licence. We needed to respond very quickly in order to provide the environmental benefit that the RSPB have identified.

Phil Burston added: This should have something like an instant bird table effect. Almost as soon as water is on the site, you will see waders coming on it to feed. They will have access to food like earthworms, which have suddenly been flushed to the surface. Hopefully some birds will then start to breed as it’s still not too late and the newly wet areas should attract those birds that have failed up to now and they may have another chance.The hope is that it will only take a few days to raise water levels on about 20 per cent of the 282-hectare reserve. Water levels in the creek itself will be carefully monitored to make sure they do not drop too quickly or too low as this could cause problems for any wildlife present.

Mr Burston said: We don’t intend this to be a regular event. We are hoping this is a one-off to try to give the birds on our Elmley Marshes reserve a much-needed boost. There’s a lot of appetite to go away this summer and look at a long term solution for the site. He added: We do carefully manage water on the reserve and the staff have been doing their utmost to move water around the site and do the best they can with the water they had, but in the end there wasn’t enough.

4th July 2014