19 October 2001

BREEDING WATCH ON RARE BIRDS

THE Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) mounted a round-the-clock watch on a Lancashire farm this summer to protect rare breeding birds from unscrupulous egg collectors.

Two pairs of black-tailed godwit, wading birds the size of wood pigeon with very long black legs, set up territories on a grazing land on Inner Marsh Farm near Preston. They resemble curlews but have straight beaks and in summer, reddish plumage.

The birds have been breeding in the area for several years and the RSPB is hopeful that a colony will establish there, as warden Tony Baker explains. "Like their relative the lapwing, godwits are colonial where populations allow and we are keeping our fingers crossed that breeding numbers will slowly increase."

With only 40 breeding pairs in the whole of the UK it makes the RSPBs symbol, the avocet, at 800 pairs, appear rather common. The godwit has declined in Europe as a whole.

The area favoured by the birds is salt marsh bisected by deep creeks and pools which the sea created but are now freshwater features. That damp edge is especially important for wader chicks.

Grazing cattle are vital in the conservation of these birds. Without them the sward becomes overgrown and the godwits would leave. On the other side of the coin there is the danger of eggs and chicks being trampled. However, with agreement with the Freckleton and Newton Marsh Owners Association, who run the site on the old parish marsh system, electric fences are erected during the egg stage to afford the birds some protection. But cattle are not the only threat.

"It is sad to say that rare birds are still at risk from egg collectors," said Mr Baker.

Michael Edwards