Farmers in Ireland can now receive payments for creating habitat areas for birds as part of the Agri-Climate Rural Environment Scheme (ACRES). Among the bird species experiencing significant population declines are waders, although this decline is somewhat masked by the arrival of migratory birds during the winter. However, breeding populations of curlew, redshank, lapwing, and golden plover are showing worrying declines. The causes of these declines include habitat loss, fragmentation, predation, and disturbance.
ACRES offers a co-operation stream that aims to address these issues affecting birds. This includes the use of wader scorecards, which are already being used in fields known to be wader hotspots. These scorecards reward and incentivize farmers for implementing wader-friendly management practices. Additionally, wader requirements will be incorporated into the screening of proposed actions in these areas, and landscape actions will be taken to support these species through the provision and enhancement of habitats. This will involve the creation of wader scrapes and the management of scrub in wader nesting areas.
Wader scrapes are shallow pools, typically no more than 20cm deep, with gently sloping sides. They can provide various benefits to farmland, including adding biodiversity to the habitat, attracting invertebrates that serve as a food source for birds and their chicks, and potentially attracting wintering waders. In spring, wader scrapes can support frog spawning, and in summer, they may provide feeding opportunities for wader chicks. In certain settings, a network of these shallow pools can also increase resilience against spring wildfires.
The Hen Harrier Project has previously trialed wader scrapes on farms, with successful results. Within one year, the scrapes were being utilized by wintering birds, and by year two, lapwings were observed on site during the breeding season. While breeding proof is not yet available, the presence of lapwings during the breeding season suggests possible breeding at these locations. ACRES staff will increase monitoring at these sites to confirm breeding activity.
To further support wader species, ACRES staff aim to remove scrub from the boundaries of sites over the winter. This will decrease cover for predators and increase the attractiveness of the sites to waders. ACRES has stated that they hope to roll out more targeted interventions to support wildlife in the coming years.
Effective land management is crucial for creating favorable conditions for breeding waders. Grazing by cattle is considered the most effective method for achieving a diverse sward height. Stocking density is a critical factor in managing sward structure. Low stocking densities should be maintained on site in the weeks and months leading up to mid-March to create the ideal sward height for the breeding season. However, during the breeding season (mid-March to late June), stocking density should not exceed 1LU/ha to avoid trampling nests. This limit may be adjusted depending on ground conditions. Topping of the sward before March 15 may also be an option, depending on conditions and if late-season management was not possible due to poor ground conditions. Topping or machinery operations after March 15 will result in a significant loss to the ACRES score.
The ACRES scheme aims to provide support and incentives for farmers to engage in environmental schemes that benefit bird populations, particularly waders. By creating habitat areas, implementing wader-friendly management practices, and carefully managing grazing and land operations, farmers can contribute to the conservation of these declining bird species in Ireland.