Sugar factory’s marshland is remodelled to help threatened wading birds
- Credit: Chris Hill
Marshland alongside the Cantley sugar factory has been remodelled to create vital feeding grounds for threatened wading birds – the result of a partnership helping landowners to improve the Broads landscape for wildlife.
British Sugar owns 45 hectares of wetland alongside processing site on the River Yare, managed under an environmental stewardship agreement and grazed by cattle owned by a neighbouring farmer to help create the ideal habitat for ground-nesting birds.
But a crucial shortfall in food supply for the fledgling chicks was identified after an assessment by Andrew Holland, the Broads wet grassland adviser for the RSPB – which is one of the 55 partner organisations working with the Broads Authority under the Lottery-funded Water, Mills and Marshes project.
He recognised that the pre-existing “footdrains” had lost their shape and become overgrown, so were not providing the bare muddy ground where young birds can forage for insects, worms and larvae.
A total of 2.4km of footdrains were reprofiled in just two days during mid-August, using the RSPB’s specialist tractor-mounted flail to recreate the shallow ditches around 30cm deep with sloping sides around 3m across.
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They have since started filling with rainwater from the linked drainage ditches, and by the time the breeding season is under way it is hoped the waterside margins will create an abundant food supply for wintering wildfowl and breeding waders – especially threatened species like lapwing and redshank.
Richard Cogman, British Sugar’s agriculture business manager at Cantley, said: “We want to do all we can to support wildlife and biodiversity around our factory sites, so we were pleased to work with the RSPB on this project.
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“These footdrains will flood during the winter, making an ideal overwintering ground for migrating wading birds. In spring and early summer, as the marshes dry and water levels recede, muddy margins will attract a multitude of fly life that will feed the newly hatched-chicks.
“We are aiming to encourage lapwing, redshank and other migrant waders to our marsh and will conduct surveys on migrant species later in the year, as well as on breeding pairs next spring, to see how they have responded to the improved wetland environment.
“We are well aware of our obligations and we have a passion to make sure that we manage this environment correctly. We identified a small gap and we sought to absolutely correct that. The management team here are really excited about the fact that we can encourage more over-wintering birds and breeding pairs and we are looking forward to seeing the statistics. That is the next step.”
READ MORE: Biodiversity audit aims to catalogue every wildlife species on north Norfolk coastMr Holland said lapwing and redshank chicks feed on non-biting midge larvae, leatherjackets, earthworms, beetles and aquatic caterpillars – but if the grass is too tall they are unable to find them.
“The lapwing chicks feed by eyesight, so they see movement and that is how they pick the food up,” he said.
“From May onwards, despite the grazing, the grass sward becomes too tall and chicks are unable to feed properly. This is when footdrains are so important, as they allow chicks to continuing feeding along the wet muddy edges of the footdrains which are abundant in protein-rich food.
“It is crucial that the footdrains are not choked full of grasses, so they do need to be managed.
“They provide a huge a food source. It is great providing a nesting habitat, that is fantastic, but it is only part of the puzzle. If you don’t provide that food, where are the young chicks going to get their food from?”
READ MORE: Extreme weather and crop disease hit East Anglia’s sugar industryMr Cogman said the footdrains had been reinstated with a “very modest investment” of around £1,200 – 50p per metre – and he now hopes more farmers can be encouraged to explore the benefits of similar projects.
He said: “Through 2021 there is an opportunity for Andrew to invite other farmers to come and see what we have done here, and to say: What is stopping you establishing some footdrains on your own marsh and improving the environment for over-wintering waders and nesting birds? That is where we want to maximise the value out of this, to exchange this knowledge with other farmers in a similar scheme.”
• For more information on the Water, Mills and Marshes project, contact Andrew Holland on 07738 100911, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or see the Water, Mills and Marshes website.