It’s ‘harvest’ time for RSPB on Halvergate marshes

RSPB's work to encourage breeding waders on the Berney Marshes which are overlooked by warden Mark Smart. A lapwing chases off a swan that got too close to her nest.
Photo by Simon Finlay. RSPB's work to encourage breeding waders on the Berney Marshes which are overlooked by warden Mark Smart. A lapwing chases off a swan that got too close to her nest. Photo by Simon Finlay.

Sunday, April 27, 2014
8:02 AM

Every year it is a real team effort spearheaded by the RSPB and involving landowners across Halvergate Marshes. Come the end of April and the appearance of eggs and chicks of vulnerable breeding waders reassuringly show their efforts have all been worthwhile. Stephen Pullinger reports.

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Two-day-old Lapwing chick just ringed by the RSPB at Halvergate Marshes.  Photo: Bill SmithTwo-day-old Lapwing chick just ringed by the RSPB at Halvergate Marshes. Photo: Bill Smith

On a bright spring day it is a truly magical place that shows that even within sight of the busy Acle Straight you can be lost in nature.

Berney Arms Windmill is visible in one direction while, turning 90 degrees, its distant modern-day cousins can be seen on Scroby Sands.

But close up, all that can be seen is the flat - but intriguingly textured - grassland of Halvergate Marshes.

So far removed from the noise of distant Great Yarmouth, its serenity is summed up by the unruffled Chinese water deer which picks its way across a field untroubled by the RSPB Land Rover being driven by site manager Mark Smart.

It is here that the wildlife charity has led a remarkable conservation effort, restoring the habitat to create the perfect home – a mosaic of foot drains (shallow ditches) and lush grassland – for such breeding waders as lapwing, redshank and oystercatcher.

Come April and it is ‘harvest’ time for Mr Smart and his dedicated team with the appearance of nests - carefully found and monitored - in the grass.

While the population of breeding waders has declined alarmingly across the country, the RSPB has been leading the fightback in Norfolk since 1987 when it bought its first strip of land on Berney Marshes, part of Halvergate Marshes which represent the biggest stretch of grassland in the country aside from the Somerset Levels.

Its landholding has since increased to 1,000 acres but the charity’s wardens are now working in partnership with landowners across the 6,000 acre Halvergate Marshes and now into the wider Broads grassland areas to provide an extended habitat for the waders.

The number of breeding waders on the marshes has steadily increased and the reserve is now home to nearly 40pc of the Broads’ population; each year about 300 nests are recorded.

From this spring for the first time, the RSPB is inviting the public to share in its success by taking a Land Rover safari through the heart of the reserve, well off the beaten track of ramblers.

The experience, part of the RSPB’s Rent a Warden scheme, offers a chance to see lapwings performing their tumbling courtship displays and to listen to the yodelling courtship calls of redshanks.

Mr Smart said: “The birds are not disturbed by the Land Rover and you can even get to see chicks running about close-up, it will be the only way that people will be able to get into the very heart of this area.”

It is early in the season and the number of nests is still limited, but when he spots a cane he steps out of the Land Rover, carefully walks to it then, counting a set number of paces, the nest suddenly appears, seemingly perilously exposed, but in reality difficult to find.

“If we don’t mark where the nests are carefully the crows quickly learn our markers mean there are eggs nearby, because they are very smart birds,” he said.

He explained that managing the water level was essential to provide the right habitat and the RSPB worked with both landowners and the Broads Internal Drainage Board to that effect.

“From autumn we need to raise the water level for the over-wintering birds that arrive in vast numbers; this winter we had 20,000 wigeon and 10,000 pink-footed geese on the marshes among a host of other birds totalling in excess of 80,000,” he said.

In the spring the water level needed to be lowered for the breeding waders to provide areas of higher dry grassland for nesting with footdrains and pools of water where the chicks could find food.

“The chicks will hatch and then walk into the wet areas; they will eat the water insects and put weight on, enabling them to fledge,” he said.

Over the years the RSPB had refined the way it managed water levels, now doing it on a larger scale across the whole reserve.

This had been achieved by blocking off the ends of all the ditches to stop water flowing out of the reserve.

Six windpumps – each costing about £20,000 and funded by Defra Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) Scheme cash – regulated the water level on different parts of the land to provide the right seasonal balance.

Now the RSPB is working with so many other landowners, who all have different needs, Mr Smart’s team has been spending time researching the optimum water levels to attract birds.

He said: “If the land is needed for grazing, having too much water on it can have a big impact, so we needed to know the minimum number of foot drains required to still attract the birds.”

They have discovered that a suitable habitat can be created without the need for large pools of water.

The foot drains are created using a rotary cultivator imported from Holland and the expertise of the team means they have been called on as contractors to manage land across the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads as well as the Cambridgeshire Fens.

They can provide a complete service for other landowners in the Broads, from helping them to source the right HLS funding for farming for wildlife to actually managing their site for them.

He said: “We need to achieve a success rate of 0.7 chicks per nest to maintain a stable population and that involves controlling predators, such as foxes and crows.”

The relationship between predators and breeding success is complex and one that is the subject of current research.

However, Mr Smart said the attraction of predators to the reserve – “like bees to a honeypot” – explained why it was important to create suitable habitat across a broader area of Halvergate Marshes.

He said landowners were essential to the project’s success and urged more to contact the RSPB.

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