Kate on Conservation

Black-Tailed Godwits need our help. This is why.

black-tailed godwit photo by Dhaval Vargiya

Black-tailed godwits are large, migratory wading birds that breed in wetland landscapes across Europe, Siberia and  Australia, the Indian Subcontinent, West Africa and parts of Western Europe.

They are categorised as near threatened on the IUCN Red List, and their breeding success has been hampered in the UK by the draining of wetland habitat, to be used instead for agriculture.

The UK’s first Black-Tailed Godwit headstarting project

Recently, I was invited to view the UK’s first headstarting project for black-tailed godwits, as it reaches the end of its 5-year trial (extended over 6 years, due to the pandemic).

Having completed at Welney Wetland Centre just yesterday, the project — a partnership between The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) and The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) — was the first of it’s kind, and has quadrupled the breeding success of the entire UK population of black-tailed godwits.

Visiting the Project Godwit fledgling pen at WWT Welney

Headstarting is based around collecting the eggs from natural nests (in this case, only the first clutch of eggs from a breeding pair); artificially raising the young and releasing them back into the wild.

This give the chicks the best chance of reaching maturity by protecting them from environmental threats, sabotage by humans, and the risk of encountering predators.

The mobile unit, where eggs were artificially incubated

Project Godwit started in 2017, when the entire UK population consisted of just 45 breeding pairs — 38 of which were in the Fens, breeding at just two sites: the Nene Washes and the Ouse Washes.

Recognising the area as having such high significance, a partnership was formed by Natural England between WWT and RSPB, with funding from the EU LIFE Nature Programme and support from many others, to begin this headstarting project.

The history of Black-Tailed Godwits in the Fens

The muddy wetlands of the Fens have always been an important place for godwits; in fact, an Old East Anglian name for the species was ‘Cambridgeshire Plumber’, used throughout the 1800s.

Although they were once widespread in the area, populations declined over time, as the wetlands themselves were lost.

Local populations were found to be extinct by the 19th century.

In the 1950s however, godwits returned after discovering the Ouse Washes. Two decades later, 65 pairs were breeding.

Over time, increased flooding in the spring and summer made it difficult for godwits — and other waders — to nest on the site, and the population began to decline once more.

In response, wet grassland habitat was created to provide nesting space for the birds, but the godwit population had become critically small, at just 3 breeding pairs at the Ouse Washes. To make matters worse, only one chick survived that year.

  Headstarting for future fledglings

A plan was launched to help the godwit population around the Ouse Washes recover and use the newly created wet grasslands. 

Beginning in 2017, the headstarting project involved collecting breeding pairs’ first clutch of eggs (usually 4 to 5 eggs per clutch) from Natural England licensed areas, and incubating them in the mobile unit.

Here they were watched by staff 24-hours a day, and robotically turned over at regular intervals.

In some cases, where the adult birds were needed to be caught to retrieve data tags, eggs collected from the nest sites were replaced with dummy eggs.

Once the data tag were retrieved, the eggs were removed so that the birds didn’t continue to sit on false eggs for a prolonged period of time.

The breeding pairs’ second clutch of the year was then left to be naturally hatched and parent-reared.

After hatching, the godwit chicks incubated at the WWT site were moved to a nursery pen in groups of 4, before graduating onto fledgling pens.

Godwits grow incredibly quickly; reaching ‘teenage size’ in just three weeks.

The fledgling pens, protected from predators and unwanted human interaction

Inside the fledgling pens, they learnt essential life skills under the protection of an electric fence, which kept predators, such as badgers and foxes, at bay.

It was essential that the netting on the fledgling pen was soft enough to stop them from hurting their wings as they practiced moving about.

The birds spent 4-7 days in the fledgling pen, where their poo was checked for any indications of health issues, and once cleared; the young godwits were fitted with their lifelong leg tags (a green ring with an E on it).

Life in the wild for headstarted godwits

This week, the final group of headstarted black-tailed godwits was released onto the Welney wetlands reserve.

Going forward, the conservation efforts for these birds will focus on monitoring and recording their life in the wild. Some of them have even been fitted with transmitters to help the task.

To date, released godwits and wild-reared godwits have been recorded in 10 countries outside of the UK: France, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Austria, Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Senegal and Mauritania.

So far, 50 released birds have returned to breeding sites in the UK and several others have bred in continental Europe.

Further birds from the Project Godwit programme are expected to return to the UK, when they’ve reached 2 years of age — but it’s worth noting that godwits have a survival rate of approximately 50% in their first year / over their first south and north migrations.

What has Project Godwit achieved?

I love to share success stories on this blog, and the dedicated work from the Project Godwit team has certainly yielded some great conservation success stories!

In 2021, the UK population of black-tailed godwits had increased to 58 pairs with 54 of these (93%) in the Fens.

When the project began in 2017, the entire UK population consisted of 45 pairs. Based on wild productivity, these pairs were predicted to fledge around 50 chicks in five years.

Project Godwit has seen 155 headstarted birds reared and released, alongside around 50 wild fledglings that were naturally parent-reared, meaning they’ve quadrupled the breeding success of the entire UK population.

Project Godwit - young godwits in the fledging pen

108 of the 155 headstarted godtwits have been released at the Ouse Washes. It would have taken this specific population (which consisted of just 3 pairs in 2017) over 90 years to produce that number of fledglings!

WWT’s modelling showed that in a worst case scenario, without the help of the headstarting project, the black-tailed godwits in this area had a 50/50 chance of being extinct by 2050.

A future for godwits — and how you can help!

The success of Project Godwit, as the first project of its kind in the UK, has shown that this conservation method works for boosting small populations of godwits.

It’s a tool that can be applied across the multiple countries that the birds can be found; or once again in the UK if necessary.

The project as a whole has been successful in boosting population size, and has also helped to raise public awareness of the birds and their plight, by engaging local schools, educating visiting members of the public, and securing high level press coverage, including a feature on BBC Springwatch.

However, despite Project Godwit’s result being good news for the population numbers; it’s not enough for godwits to be considered safe. It will be the breeding success of these birds in the wild that determines their long-term future.

The work at WWT Welney Wetland Centre has helped conservationists to learn a lot more about the problems black-tailed godwits are facing in the wild, and hopefully we can find solutions to these.

The team continue to monitor the threats the birds are facing, and say conservation work needs to take place across the landscape, to ensure the species’ vital habitat is protected: godwits feed in coastal areas and breed in wetlands.

For godwits to thrive in the Fens, we need bigger, better and more connected wetlands where there’s a balance between predators and prey.

Expanding the range of wetland habitats is likely to require local councils and private landowners to get involved, to connect ranges and create habitat corridors.

You can help too; if you spot a godwit with a lime green coloured ring on its leg, with an ‘E’ on it (as shown in the image above), please make a record of when and where you’ve seen the bird, and submit your record online here: https://projectgodwit.org.uk/

You can find out more about the work of WWT Welney Wetland Centre, and support their important conservation work here.

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