THE FIRST survey in six years is being carried out to record the number of wading birds breeding on moorlands of the North York Moors after a previous study revealed concerns about the decline in key species.
Previous insights into breeding waders carried out in 1996, 2000 and 2008 led to 108,726 acres of moorland habitats in the North York Moors – the largest continuous patch in England and Wales – being designated as both a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Protection Area.
The North York Moors National Park Authority’s Head of Natural Environment, Simon Wightman, claimed the research will be vital to drawing up future conservation plans.
He added: “The picture is quite complex, but these repeated surveys provide ‘snapshots’ of wader numbers in the moors which help us to understand the overall picture.”
The 1996 survey found golden plover to be breeding in numbers that were considered to be important both nationally and internationally and populations of curlew were also deemed nationally significant - which led to the site receiving protection status.
The study in 2000 showed a significant increase in the number of breeding curlew and lapwing compared to 1996 with populations of golden plover and snipe remaining stable. In 2008, the results showed – with the exception of lapwing – no significant differences compared to 2000. But lapwing numbers showed a decline which reflected a national trend.
Experts claim weather can have a major effect on available food and increased vulnerability of eggs and chicks and will affect the productivity of birds from one year to the next, but it is unlikely to account for longer term population changes in long-lived birds.
Mr Wightman added: “We were obviously concerned about the decline in lapwing breeding on the moors highlighted by the 2008 survey, and curlew too is becoming a worry with numbers in the UK declining by 45 per cent between 1995 and 2011.
“This is a species for which we have a strong international responsibility given the declines that have been recorded across its range and the high proportion of the population that breeds in the UK. The Authority, Natural England and landowners will continue to do what we can to maintain and improve conditions for waders.”
Curlew, golden plover, lapwing and snipe are the four species of wader that nest on the North York Moors, with lapwing being ‘red’ listed as a bird of conservation concern affording it the highest conservation priority with species needing urgent action. The other three are all listed as “amber status” with curlew is also identified as “near threatened” under IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) international criteria, one of only four UK breeding birds listed and the one for which we have the greatest proportion of the global population.
Wintering on marshes, estuaries and wetlands, the birds return to the moors from April to July to nest and raise their young. Each species favours slightly different habitats but all need an open aspect with access between moorland, where they nest and neighbouring pasture where they often feed and may also nest.
Working with landowners and farmers to enhance the habitat for waders is one of the objectives of the authority’s local biodiversity action plan.