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Thames Estuary 'one of the UK's most internationally important waterbird sites'

Last modified: 18 November 2008

Flock of winter-plumaged black-tailed godwits

Waterbirds in the UK 2006/2007, a report released yesterday [Monday November 17] places the Thames Estuary in the top five internationally important sites in the UK for the high number of waterbirds found there during winter or migration.

The RSPB sees this as further confirmation that the idea of an international airport anywhere in the Thames Estuary is a complete not starter.

The study, which began counting waterbird numbers in the 1960s in response to a proposed Maplin Sands Airport in Essex, found 12 species in the Thames Estuary in internationally important numbers – the highest concentration anywhere in the South East. The diversity of its waterbird species places the estuary in the top five internationally important sites in the UK, out of 143 recorded.

Chris Corrigan, RSPB South East's regional director, said: 'If ever Boris needed proof of the environmental cost involved in building a Thames Estuary airport, this report – which actually came about in response to a past airport proposal – is it.

'Here, in black and white yet again, is proof of just how remarkable the area really is for wildlife'

'For years we have been pointing to the estuary's importance for countless species and here, in black and white yet again, is proof of just how remarkable the area really is for wildlife.

'The nearby Swale and Medway Estuaries, similarly recognised by this report for their international importance, will also lose out if an airport went ahead. If Boris thinks building an airport anywhere in this area is viable, this report shows he needs to think again.'

The study finds the Thames Estuary to be the only internationally important site in the UK for the Amber Listed ringed plover, and the second most internationally important site in the UK for dunlin, found to be at its lowest level nationally since the 1970s.

Globally significant populations of the UK's two species of godwit – types of wading bird – were also found in the Thames Estuary. Both show differing trends across the UK, with the black-tailed godwit – a bird of global conservation concern – reaching its highest level; while the closely-related bar-tailed godwit, hit its lowest level to date, after a five-year decline.

Teal and shoveler, also declining across the UK, are still found here in internationally important numbers, as are redshank – a type of wader now at its lowest level nationally for 20 years.

Elsewhere in Kent, the Medway Estuary is cited for internationally important populations of avocet, pintail, and black-tailed godwit. The nearby Swale Estuary is noted for wigeon, teal black-tailed godwit and pintail.

12 key sites

Across the South East, 12 key sites were found to host internationally important numbers of waterbirds. Dr Mark Avery, the RSPB's conservation director, said: 'This report shows that our estuaries and wetlands are wonderful places for wildlife and they deserve to remain so.

'These sites, almost like airports, are vital staging posts for international travellers. Although climate change and development threaten these wonderful sites, the RSPB will continue to do everything in its power to protect them.'

'We are blessed with years of information, chronicling the ups and downs of these international travellers. This information must present a wake-up call to protect these sites, rather than provide a record of how important they once were.'

The report identifies climate change – specifically milder winters – as underlying many of the observed changes, as birds shorten their migratory flyways and spend the winter in other countries closer to their breeding grounds.

Safe roosts and plentiful food

Dr Debbie Pain, director of conservation at the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, said: 'WWT reserves offer safe roosts and a plentiful food source to some 200,000 waterbirds every winter. At this time of the year, the UK's estuaries, marshes and wetlands throng with the arrival of ducks, geese, swans and wading birds, making the UK one of the most important countries in the world for some of these birds.

'However, we are becoming increasingly concerned about the declining numbers of some populations. Conservation action is needed urgently to reverse these declines.'

Dr Andy Musgrove, head of the Wetland Bird Survey at the British Trust for Ornithology, BTO said: 'An army of thousands of volunteer birdwatchers has collected counts of wetland birds for over 60 years from around the country. These counts have proved invaluable time after time, whether investigating the potential impacts of industrial developments, assessing the likely effects of climate change or looking into the influence of introduced species on our native wildlife. '

'Here in the UK we are extremely fortunate to have such a dedicated team of skilled volunteers who are willing to give up their time to provide this vital information. It is thanks to them, and the high quality data they provide, that decisions affecting our internationally important populations of waterbirds can be based on sound scientific evidence. '


David Stroud, JNCC's Senior Ornithologist, said: 'Maintaining the Wetland Bird Survey is essential to obtain good data on the trends of UK's waterbirds.  Information on the status of these birds informs us about pressures not only at local sites here in the UK, but also about changing conditions on distant breeding grounds in the arctic – currently threatened by climate change.'

Research is needed to determine whether declines are due to birds short-stopping (that is, birds wintering closer to their breeding grounds, and hence occurring in the UK in smaller numbers) or whether they are ‘real' global population declines.

The report is published by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO); Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT); Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB); and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC).

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