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Another wash-out for Ouse Washes breeding birds

Last modified: 11 June 2008

Black-tailed godwit in display flight

Nesting black-tailed godwits have been washed out yet again

Floods over the meadows of the Ouse Washes have wiped out the nesting season for wading birds for a second successive year.

Several hundred pairs of ground-nesting waders – lapwings, redshanks and snipe – have lost eggs or recently hatched chicks. The majority were on the RSPB’s nature reserve in Cambridgeshire, but also on land owned by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in Norfolk, the Wildlife Trusts and other landowners.

In addition, roughly 900 pairs of ducks of seven species have lost their nests and eggs.

No hope for nesting birds

The Ouse Washes are now flooded bank to bank. Recent rain and rising river levels mean prospects seem hopeless for this year’s breeding season at this 19 mile long, internationally important wetland.

These floods show the urgent need to create new wet meadows in the Fens, says the RSPB.

A further problem is that continual flooding makes management of the Ouse Washes impossible, jeopardising both its wildlife value and its ability to work as a flood defence.

Feeling the frustration

Jon Reeves, RSPB Ouse Washes Site Manager said: 'The current state of the Ouse Washes is so frustrating for me and my team. As well as losing so many birds’ nests yet again, with the most of the washes under water since last May we cannot get out there to manage the reserve. No ditches have been dug out and the grass is in poor condition, urgently needing cattle to graze it.

'We have just 350 cattle here of the 2,000 we expected. These have been confined to the barrier banks and few higher marshes and we’ve had to evacuate several hundred. Grazed wet meadows are vital for wildlife, but they also make the washes work as a flood storage area. Right now, both are under threat. It’s urgent to get the water off the Ouse Washes and give us a chance to get the place up and running again.'

In March 2005, Elliot Morley, then a Defra Minister, announced the Government’s commitment to fix the deterioration of the Ouse Washes Special Protection Area. To fulfil obligations under EU Directives, the Government agreed to fund the purchase of land for habitat creation outside the Ouse Washes to provide alternative homes for these birds.

The Environment Agency is now leading this habitat creation project, to enable the Ouse Washes to continue to operate as a washland, protecting people and property. The RSPB is providing help and support to establish new wetlands without undue delay.

New meadows at Manea have attracted 69 pairs of waders this year, namely 26 pairs of lapwings, 25 pairs of redshanks and 18 pairs of snipe. This 76-hectare ‘pilot’ area demonstrates the feasibility of creating much larger areas of new wetland close to the Ouse Fens.

John Orr, Environment Manager for the Environment Agency, said: 'Having cleared all of the water from the Washes by the start of the breeding season, it is very disappointing that unseasonable heavy rain has brought flood waters back.  The flooding of the Ouse Washes in spring is never good for the many birds that nest there and we are doing all we can to remove the water from the area as quickly as we can, so nesting birds may lay a second brood. 
'Since the flooding last year, we have worked hard to try and reduce the impact of the flooding in the Ouse Washes, including engineering improvements to Little Eye Sluices at Denver.  We continue to work with the RSPB and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust to search for new land to create a safe habitat for ground nesting birds, away from flooding.'

Floods in the nesting season have been the main cause for the collapse in the Ouse Washes breeding population of black-tailed godwits, one of the UK’s rarest breeding waders. In 1972, there were 65 pairs of this elegant wader breeding on the Ouse Washes, this year there were just three pairs at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust nature reserve, all of which have lost eggs or chicks.

The Ouse Washes were built to take flood water in the Fens and beyond, especially in winter, allowing drainage of large areas of arable land and, in the process, creating a haven for wildlife within the Washes. 

Since the mid-1970s, a combination of factors has led to more regular summer floods and longer, deeper winter flooding.  This has led to frequent poor years for ground-nesting birds. There hasn’t been a completely flood free breeding season since 2003: recent complete wash-outs were in 2004 and 2007.

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