CONSERVATION efforts for wading birds in the Upper Clyde Valley are to be expanded under a partnership involving 17 farmers, RSPB Scotland and SAC Consulting .

Their project has just received Biodiversity Challenge Funding from Scottish Natural Heritage, providing £90,000 to allow a package of work to improve farmland habitats for the birds and undertake monitoring to better understand how threatened species are faring across the Lanarkshire and Ayrshire uplands.

Globally, Scotland and the UK are a significant home for waders, yet they are in steep decline, with two thirds of curlews and half of lapwings lost in Scotland since 1994.

The group of South Lanarkshire and East Ayrshire farmers were initially part of the RSPB’s Clyde Valley Wader Initiative, which saw them work with SAC Consulting, to help direct agri-environment funding to farmers in wader hotspots. The parties then worked with the Soil Association Scotland-led Rural Innovation Support Service to carry on and expand the work.

Senior conservation advisor with RSPB Scotland, Dan Brown, who will manage the new project, said the reasons for the birds nesting in the area were varied, but extensive farming systems, agri-environment schemes and predator management were the most important factors: “Scotland is a key country for these species, and the agri-environment schemes have been a key delivery mechanism for their survival outside of nature reserves. But their breeding success is still too low, so we need to understand and quantify what works, to better target the schemes and future management.”

Mr Brown said the BCF funding would allow the group to collect data on stocking rates, grazing techniques and soil characteristics and how they interact with bird nesting, hatching and causes of nest loss.

In 2019, as part of a work placement at RSPB, Glasgow University student Stephen Inglis carried out a study of 100 fields and recorded 130 nests, and found that for lapwings, for example, the hatching rate was nearly 2.5 times higher on fields in agri-environment schemes than on fields in no schemes. However, overall less than 20% of nests were successful, which is too low to support the population if repeated over several years.

Jennifer Struthers of SAC Consulting facilitated a RISS group that met to continue investigating: “RISS provided a forum for the farmers to come together and see what they could do to improve the situation. They care about having the birds there – I can’t put into words how enthusiastic they have been.”

Through the RISS meetings the group met PhD student Emma Sheard, of Stirling University, whose research indicates that liming soil may bring certain earthworms to the top, attracting waders. Other research showed silage fields that were shut off from livestock had higher survival rates than those with some livestock, leading researchers to wonder if livestock presence may inadvertently attract predators to fields with the bird nests.

Following the RISS work, the farmers formed their own group, Clyde Valley Waders. Chair Doug Telfer runs two farms in the Duneaton valley, one of which is 850-acre Glendouran, with 850 sheep and 50 breeding cows: “I grew up on this farm, listening for the first curlew, the first peewit – when you hear the first curlew you know that spring’s here. On a moonlit night it’s alive up here with snipe and curlew. I wouldn’t want to hear it go quiet. This group of farmers are all of the same mind.

“Our sort of farming is not so intensive. It’s easy for us to restrict sheep numbers in a field. We record where the wader nests are. If there’s a nest I mark around it so we don’t spray. If you move a nest and put it back on the exact same spot the birds will come back to it.

“I have water margins I’ve fenced off to allow wildlife – we have a lot of ‘wet’ areas that suit wading birds. There are 50 acres at the bottom of the valley that just erupt!”

As well as the project with the RSPB, the farmers will carry out soil sampling, invertebrate counts and compaction testing over the summer with Ms Struthers, and will also help the British Trust for Ornithology, part of the Working for Waders initiative, with refining their monitoring.

“These birds are up against it,” said Mr Telfer. “They face risks from humans, as well as other predators. It must be down to the humans to protect them, too.”