Graziers and RSPB conservationists seek a balance in the Broads

Beef cattle on grazing land at Berney Marshes. Picture: James Bass

Beef cattle on grazing land at Berney Marshes. Picture: James Bass - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2016

While a £1m new reserve will focus its conservation efforts in the Broads, the RSPB says partnerships with surrounding farmers are equally vital to the fortunes of vulnerable wading birds.

RSPB site manager Mark Smart and grazier Barry Brooks on Berney Marshes. Picture: James Bass

RSPB site manager Mark Smart and grazier Barry Brooks on Berney Marshes. Picture: James Bass - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2016

Despite all the good work of nature reserves, it is often said that conservation efforts can only be fully effective when applied on a landscape scale.

That requires the integration of wildlife measures within the commercial work of the countryside and – in the case of the marshlands of the Broads – it must include the traditional grazing of livestock.

And following the £1m extension to its Berney Marshes reserve earlier this month, the RSPB says collaborations with neighbouring landowners and graziers are crucial to ensure the chicks nurtured in such a protective environment can live and breed in the farmed landscape.

It means finding the right animals to keep grass at the perfect height throughout the year, and managing water levels to find the delicate balance between the wading needs of waterfowl and the solid base for cattle and sheep.

An adult lapwing. Picture: RSPB

An adult lapwing. Picture: RSPB - Credit: RSPB Images


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The RSPB's new site sits alongside its reserves at Breydon Water and Berney Marshes, part of the 3,000ha of coastal floodplain and grazing marsh which the wildlife charity manages in the Broads.

But it is also working with more than 40 landowners throughout the full 18,000ha of this habitat type found in the Broads, aiming to help them create the right conditions for target species such as lapwings and redshanks, while maintaining a viable food production business.

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Mark Smart, the RSPB's site manager for Berney Marshes and Breydon Water, said: 'It is hugely important.

'As a conservation charity, we cannot continue buying bits of land. The whole process is about getting birds back into the wider countryside, and the RSPB reserves are breeding wader farms. Our crop is chicks, and they have got to go somewhere, so working with cattle breeders to create the right environment for both their livestock and our birds means there is somewhere for the birds we produce on our land to move into.'

'The birds we are targeting, the lapwing and redshank, are marshland birds, so they need that wet edge where the water meets the ground. By having graziers who know how we work, we can create the right conditions, the right height of grass, and the right 'tussockiness'.

'There is also the issue of trampling rates of nests, so by having the right type of steady animals, with calves at foot, those rates drops right off, and it gives us the confidence we can turn out animals in areas where we have nesting waders.

'We don't want to maximise every single hectare for birds. We want to provide a mosaic so there are higher, drier fields graziers can use for early turnout, and good quality grass early in the season, and wetter grass which won't be grazed until later in the summer. We are trying to find the middle balance.'

Mr Smart said his own farming background had helped him negotiate flexible grazing arrangements with cattle owners.

'My father was a stockman and I was born and brought up with cattle,' he said. 'But I have always had this passion for wading birds as well. Trying to bring it all together is very important for me.

'It is very much a partnership. We cannot predict where the birds are going to be, so we have to be reasonably flexible in working with the graziers and they have to be flexible with us. But I understand that we have all got to make a profit and a living out of this area.'

FARMING PARTNERS

One of the farmers working with the RSPB is Barry Brooks, managing director of Beckhithe Farms, based at Hall Farm in Reedham,

He said the company has about 3,700 head of beef cattle in the Broads, as well as 800 ewes, producing 1,000 lambs a year. The animals are grazed on the farm's own 3,500 acres, but also on the RSPB reserves in conjunction with Mr Smart's requirements. The cattle are out-wintered in yards, and their outdoor conditioning makes them particularly useful, as they can be turned out early in spring to manage the grass levels if needed.

'Over the years, what we have done is put the right cattle and the right sheep in the right environment,' said Mr Brooks. 'We want a safe animal, because people walk through here. And we want something that will do well on not the best grass – this is all organic grass, and none of our cattle grass receives any nitrogen.

'We are in Higher Level Stewardship and adjacent to the RSPB land we have got 171 acres of red-hot wader land for breeding lapwings and redshanks.

'That land has got foot-drains all over it, and the water levels are held closer to the surface of the land.

'We work with Natural England to get minimum gazing levels. If you look at that land, it is not so productive for beef, and we have got marshes which have not been re-seeded in all their lifetime.

'Back in 1998 the field we are standing in was arable land. What the RSPB has done is raise the water levels so they are within a foot of the top of the dyke. And they have put these little foot-drains all over the place, to do right for the breeding waders. They are wrong for snails and lungworm with the cattle, but we have to work with that.

'We have got three or four lapwings nesting in this field. I love every aspect of nature, whether it is the water voles or the birds. To do this, you have got to love it, but I think we have been successful at it.'

TARGET SPECIES

The RSPB says lapwings declined by 42pc in the UK, between 1995 and 2012, and redshanks by 44pc, which is why they have become the focus of targeted research and management at reserves in the Broads.

Lapwing: The lapwing – or 'peewit' to use its colloquial name – is a wader in the plover family, recognisable from its distinctive crest and erratic wavering flight.

Lapwings are found on farmland throughout the UK and permanent unimproved pasture is one of their preferred habitats in the breeding season. In winter they flock on pasture and ploughed fields, and Breydon Water and Berney Marshes have some of the highest known concentrations of wintering lapwing in the country.

Numbers of the birds breeding in England have plummeted by 80pc since the 1960s, leading to lapwings being put on the UK's Red List of threatened species, but in recent years targeted conservation efforts have led to localised recoveries in their numbers, and 2014 was a record year for lapwings breeding on RSPB nature reserves in Eastern England.

Redshank: As its name suggests, the redshank's most distinctive features are its bright orange-red legs.

Redshanks breed in damp places like salt marshes, flood meadows and around lakes, but during winter they can be more commonly be found on estuaries and coastal lagoons as UK breeding birds are joined by winter visitors from Iceland.

The UK breeding population of redshanks now stands at about a third of what it was 25 years ago – a decline which has been attributed to increased drainage and agricultural intensification on the saltmarshes and wet meadows it uses to breed.

Sharp declines in redshank numbers in other parts of the country have made the wet grazing marsh and saltmarsh in Eastern England an increasingly important stronghold for the birds.

Are you working on a farmland conservation project? Contact chris.hill@archant.co.uk.

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