Another Life: Our waders are growing fewer year by year

Michael Viney: A new survey brings arresting confirmations of decline

Even the robust oystercatcher had fallen from 109 pairs to 34 on the Inishkeas.

Even the robust oystercatcher had fallen from 109 pairs to 34 on the Inishkeas.

 

In the many years of this column, I’ve explored much bad news about Ireland’s birds – species after species shown as “threatened” or “vulnerable” in the lexicon of decline. Looking for causes points often to man-made changes, especially the loss of nesting habitat in the intensifying human use of land.

This is especially true of waders in farming lowland. In Northern Ireland over the past 30 years, pairs of lapwing have declined by 70 per cent, curlew by 80 per cent, redshank by 76 per cent and snipe by 71 per cent.

In the Republic, too, many of our home-bred waders are now so few that the little flocks they form in late summer are quite lost in the autumn inrush of migrants of the same species from Europe. Even these, however, are growing fewer year by year.

On the coastal land of Ireland’s west, stretches of grassland behind the dunes, and on uninhabited offshore islands, have offered refuge to Ireland’s native ground-nesting waders. But a new survey for the National Parks & Wildlife Service has brought arresting confirmations of decline.

The machair land of the coast has been held in fitful balance between flocks of grazing sheep and conservation. But overgrazing is now matched by concern about the appetite of predatory wildlife.

Sheskinmore, Co Donegal, is a thrilling coastal wilderness of highly protected dunes, machair grassland and lakes. But nesting lapwing have been facing a hazardous existence, along with the little dunlin, which once bred there abundantly.

When human disturbance has already narrowed the numbers in particular bird populations, predation can be a 'primary driver' of critical loss

To restore lapwing breeding, BirdWatch Ireland volunteers fenced off grassland with a double wall of netting dug well into the ground. This spring, three pairs duly nested, with at least two broods of chicks. At the end of May, however, badgers tunnelled under the fence and wiped out the little colony.

This is the sort of thing badgers do, and what ground-nesting birds have always had to suffer. But when human disturbance has already narrowed the numbers in particular bird populations, predation can be a “primary driver” of critical loss.

Further down the Wild Atlantic Way, at Annagh Marsh reserve on the Mullet Peninsula in Co Mayo, BirdWatch Ireland saw a decade of decline in breeding lapwing due to attacks by foxes. Even “active predator control” failed to stop them. Another fence has turned things round – but again at considerable cost.

The panicky cries of nesting lapwings are still part of early summer on the machair shore below me, at Doogary, with a reported rise to 16 pairs last year. They may be helped by the severe war on foxes on a hillside full of sheep.

But when a lot of sheep graze the machair, they leave the grass nibbled to a lawn, robbing it of the tussocks in which many species make a nest. The new survey notes a near-tripling of sheep at Dooaghtry since 2009. While its breeding lapwings have increased, breeding dunlin, redshank, common sandpiper and ringed plover have all been lost.

The declines on offshore islands are just as alarming. Each wader species has declined by some 70 to 90 per cent.

In 2009, Mayo’s Inishkea Islands, a special protection area, held the most breeding waders: 377 pairs. But by 2019 only 68 pairs were found. Again, sheep numbers had doubled on the north island, the favourite nesting ground of waders and terns. With less grass to hide them, common gulls had stepped up the theft of eggs from nests of lapwing, ringed plover, dunlin and redshank.

Dunlin has fared worst, down by 90 per cent even on the Inishkeas. Here, too, even the robust oystercatcher had fallen from 109 pairs to 34. Without foxes or badgers (but possibly mink) only sheep overgrazing seems left to blame.

Part of the plover survey took note of heather’s quantity, age and shape. Golden plover, it seems, are choosy about its height

The survey is online as the NPWS Irish Wildlife Manual 119. It’s followed, in Manual 120, by a survey of another wader on the peaty heights of the Nephin hills, seen as an important breeding area for the beautiful golden plover.

This makes some fascinating reading, as BirdWatch Ireland’s Dave Suddaby and Cathal O’Brien bring exact methodologies to counting breeding plover in 27 separate square kilometres of their boggy and heathery habitat.

Following slow, straight-line walks a kilometre long with parallel walks spaced out across the hill, they found five pairs of plover in breeding territories; down from eight since 2006. These are tiny figures compared with the great flocks of foreign migrant plover in winter, wheeling dramatically above the coastal wetlands of the west.

Ironically, their native decline may be due to inclusion of the Nephin hills in the Ballycroy National Park, with consequently fewer sheep and an increased growth of heather. Part of the plover survey took note of heather’s quantity, age and shape. Golden plover, it seems, are choosy about its height.

And do Google pictures of the plover in breeding plumage. You’ll see why it’s called “golden”.

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