For the past ten years the RSPB’s Gavin Thomas has been working on the Bowland Wader project, an initiative aimed at encouraging farmers in Bowland, North Lancashire, to help breeding waders thrive on their land. Here, he tells us more about the project and the benefits it has brought for wildlife and farmers alike.

The Bowland Wader Project is part of a nationwide programme of free, professional advice and support given to farmers under the RSPB’s Farm Advice Focus Area initiative. These Focus Areas comprise around 20 farmed landscapes across the UK, which are particularly important for wildlife and habitats. By working with farmers in these areas, we hope to provide an exemplar for saving nature in the wider countryside.

The pastoral farmland of the Bowland Focus Area is nationally important for breeding waders but - in line with national trends - they are in decline. So in 2001, the Bowland Wader Project was set up and we began work to help the area’s lapwings, curlews, redshanks, snipe and oystercatchers.

Curlew in traditionally managed meadow. Image: Gavin Thomas

Bowland’s waders breed mostly on the ‘in-bye’ land – the rough, boggy enclosed pastures and meadows below the moorland. Collectively, the livestock farmers here hold the key to securing the long-term future of Bowland’s breeding wader population.

Although supporting farmers with the practicalities of conserving waders is the mainstay of the project, it is far broader. Yes, waders benefit, but so does a lot of other wildlife, as well as many of the people that live and work in Bowland and their local businesses. A number of farmers have seen the value of celebrating the wildlife on their land through diversification enterprises, converting farm buildings into holiday lets and B&B’s and building bird hides which give their visitors excellent opportunities to see waders at close quarters on their land.

I’m also involved with a lot of community engagement work, giving talks, running guided walks and sessions with local schoolchildren including an annual programme of farm visits where kids get their feet muddy and learn about how important sheep and cows are for conserving wading birds.

Kids on a farm visit. Image: Forest of Bowland AONB

While the Bowland Wader Project is RSPB led, we couldn’t do all this on our own. Many people give their time to help with practical habitat management tasks and survey work. Of course the willingness of Bowland’s farmers is critical but we work closely with other organisations in Bowland as well, including Natural England, local councils, Forest of Bowland AONB, and the water company United Utilities. We work together on wildlife-friendly farming schemes, funding bids, farm events and much more. The Wader Project has provided training and support to these organisations’ advisers on the needs of wading birds and how to help them through their own work.

We also monitor the wildlife as part of the project. A fantastic band of volunteers help us undertake breeding wader surveys on around 30 farms each spring, which enables us to both monitor how waders are faring on the individual farms and also keep tabs on longer term trends in breeding waders across Bowland. The volunteers love it; getting out into quiet areas of farmland in a stunning part of the country away from the masses whilst doing their bit for science and conservation.

The surveys show that waders respond well to habitat management work. Chipping Moss is part of the Leagram Estate in South Bowland. The area is a mixture of pasture dominated by rush - a thick grass that grows in clumps in wet areas - and traditionally managed meadows. Here, breeding waders jumped from just three pairs: single pairs of lapwing, curlew and snipe, in 2003 to a remarkable 23 pairs, 13 lapwing, four curlew, four snipe and four redshank in 2006. This rapid turnaround of fortunes was due to the huge effort to improve the habitat for waders by the landowner John Weld-Blundell, tenant farmer Johnny Neary and local farmer and contractor Simon Stott who has also done fantastic conservation work for waders on his own farm nearby.

Johnny Neary and young farmers on Chipping Moss. Image: Gavin Thomas

Johnny Neary says: “Chipping Moss has been transformed from a dense rush dominated site to a valuable open area of grazing pasture far more suitable for my grazing animals and the wildlife.”

Their work has also benefited a range of other wildlife including skylarks, brown hares, amphibians and dragonflies. The site is now a true wildlife oasis, annual training events for the project’s wader survey volunteers are held here and it is frequently used as a demonstration site to show other farmers and advisers what quality breeding wader habitat can look like with the right funding and partnerships in place.

At Barkin Gate Farm, a traditional sheep and beef farm in Roeburndale, north Bowland, the lapwing population doubled after the first year of management under the wildlife-friendly farming scheme, Higher Level Stewardship. This was largely due to mowing of dense areas of rush and the creation of small pools known as wader scrapes by the farmer Malcolm Woodhouse, who has also hosted an event on his farm to inspire other local farmers to follow his lead.

A programme of habitat management work at Landskill Farm near Garstang has increased the lapwing population to over 30 pairs and this provides a real spectacle for the guests staying at Caldertop holiday cottage run by the farm owners Stephen and Alison Kelsall.

Lapwing chicks. Image: Gavin Thomas

Alison says: “We have had several repeat bookings from both British and European visitors who particularly enjoy the wildlife and many walks from the door.”  One guest commented: “Your focus on nesting birds incorporated with your farming was one of the main reasons I chose to come and stay with you.”

To date the Bowland Wader Project has provided advice and support to over 180 Bowland farmers and landowners. Over 140 of these have implemented some form of land management that benefits wading birds. The Project has secured millions of pounds for local farmers to not only support their efforts for farmland wildlife but also keep them in business. Upland livestock farming is tough and the reality is that without funding for wildlife-friendly farming, many of the small upland livestock farmers we are working with in Bowland would have gone out of business. And this would be bad news for waders. No livestock farming, no waders.

The battle to save Bowland’s waders can only be won if all the good work being done by the farmers working with the Wader Project continues.