Farlington Marshes is an incredibly important site for waders and wildfowl within the local area. A lot of the focus on the site is in winter when thousands of birds descend on the site and feed, roost and bathe in the range of habitats that are there. If you take advantage of the site on a big spring tide, like the ones that we have just had when all the islands in the harbour are reduced to small spits of land, you will be treated to thousands of roosting dunlin, redhank and oyster cathers. With climate change, rising sea levels will see this as a much more regular feature.
What is often overlooked at Farlington is the spring and summer visitors. The site plays host to many species of breeding birds and arguably the most important are its breeding waders. This primarily constitutes lapwing, redshank and avocet, the latter being a very recent development for the reserve.
These are the main focus for the site in the spring. One of the first birds to breed, they desire a short, cropped sward so they can look out for predators. Our grazing regime through the summer, followed by a couple of thousand brent geese in the winter allow for perfect conditions by March for this species to call Farlington home.
Unfortunately, as in many of our ground nesting wader species, lapwing have seen a dramatic decline in the past couple of decades. Nationally, lapwing breeding populations have declined by 53% (according to the BTO BBS data). We have seen this at Farlington with pairs traditionally at around 30 pairs in the 80’s with more recent numbers around 15. There just aren’t many around. We have sites further inland which are perfect for breeding lapwing but just don’t have them. It poses a serious problem across the UK. We have good sites that can be utilised by waders but they are quite site faithful and tend to go where other waders go, therefore attracting them to new, safer sites which don’t already have lapwing is a significant hurdle that we need to address.
This species has seen similar decline of 29% in wet meadows across the UK. These have a slightly different need to the lapwing, in terms of nesting habitat. They like a bit of a rougher sward, with tussocks that they can tuck their nests into. At Farlington this is often around the peripheries of the site where the cattle don’t graze as thoroughly, or in the rougher areas where we do not mow.
This species has seen an increase in the last couple of decades, rising in numbers after a huge crash. Farlington has only played host to them for the last three years, where the population has grown each year. They nest in a similar habitat to Lapwing, in very open country and associated to water.
All these species are ground nesting making them very vulnerable to predation, both from the ground and the air. Even once they’ve hatched, the chicks are small fluffy snacks for a range of predators so survivability is very low. The main strategy for the parents is to mob any potential predator and this they do exceptionally well. Avocets in particular are extremely aggressive, seeing off crows and even buzzards by swooping down on them. They tend to nest in loose colonies so the effect is accentuated and can be very effective.
The problem in the current era of development and intensive farming is that many of these species are confined to small areas of land, especially nature reserves. This crush of breeding birds is a veritable buffet for a host of ever expanding predators. Farlington has foxes, crow, magpies, jackdaws, weasel, hedgehogs, buzzards, all of which can find eggs or pluck a chick without a problem. Recently ravens have become the biggest threat. Beefy and smart, they have no problem finding nests or gobbling chicks up until a late stage in their development. In 2018 I watched a pair of ravens take every single lapwing chick on the marsh over a few weeks. I watched crows the year before take many of the avocet eggs. All in all the odds are stacked against them. They are however long lived birds, so just one good year in the few means the difference between a declining and an increasing population. Several good years means a significant boost.
2019 at Farlington saw hopefully the first good year at Farlington in a while. In fact it was the best year in terms of breeding waders in the last 20 years. This has been a result of a lot of intensive management and probably quite a heavy dose of good luck.
What we did
Starting in the winter of 2018/2019 we did some quite dramatic habitat management works around the main breeding areas on site. We removed all the scrub with in the marsh and some around the boundaries. What was left in the peripheries we reduced down to fence height. the immediate effect of doing this meant we had brent geese feeding right up next to the fence line which we hadn’t had in previous years. The intention was to make it more attractive to breeding waders. Generally these species do not like areas in which they don’t have a clear view. If there is a big old bramble bush in the way, then they will be deterred. However, we don’t want to lose our hedges as they provide a home for species such as linnets therefore we now maintain them at a much lower level, about 1.8m. This allows space for more species. We also lay many of our overstood hedges to create better nesting habitat for small passerines and eliminate the nesting habitat and perching posts for corvids.
We also cut a large area of reed that had occurred due to a leak in the sea wall, causing the site to become wetter over the years. The 2.5 hectares of reed that had developed meant that this part of the site which historically was very good for lapwing, was no longer suitable. we therefore cut if back. This was a significant undertaking and took us almost a whole month of volunteer tasks.
Once we got into the breeding season we started a series of predator controls. we put nails into fence posts to prevent species like crows perching on them. This was mainly around keys breeding areas. These viewpoints allowed crows to sit and watch and being clever little things, they could easily work out where the nests were.
Our main solution to predation was diversionary feeding. The ravens were a particular problem so we set up a series of large bird tables where we put out eggs and road kill as regularly as we could. They were particularly keen on day old chicks, the kind that you feed your pet snake. I have footage of a raven taking three at a time!
By a stroke of luck many of the black headed gulls that nest out on the harbours islands were disturbed early in the season. About 70 odd packed up and moved onto Farlington, something that we have never had in such numbers. Luckily we had done some management works the previous year to entice terns (which we did) and so the islands on the lakes were a perfect alternative. The combined effect of all these gulls, the lapwing and the avocet meant that any predatory bird that flew over had a significantly hard time getting any where near the nests. Even the ravens were a bit put off!
Realistically the conditions were very poor across the marsh for breeding waders that spring. We had quite a dry winter followed by an incredibly dry spring and summer. There was less water at the end of winter within The Deeps than I have ever seen. This is important as it is our reservoir for feeding the rest of the sites ditches and allowing the wet areas needed for the chicks to feed in. This saw many of the chicks being moved quite some distance. In one case the chicks made it all the way through the reedbed onto the lake, where they did very well. Adult lapwing move their chicks some way in order to find them the damp conditions that they need.
We had to very carefully monitor our water levels over that spring to maintain the conditions needed without lowering the water levels too much in The Deeps and exposing the nesting islands to predation from foxes. It was quite a tightrope but we managed it.
One of my more pleasing solutions to the arid conditions was the use of a solar powered pond water fountain. It could be put on a timer in the surrounding ditch line and for three hours every day it pumped water into a wet flush on the edge of the reserve where a couple of lapwing pairs had young. It worked surprisingly well for £60.
As I have mentioned, 2019 was the best year in terms of breeding waders within the last 20 years. The last good year was 2010 and we had better numbers than that. Lapwing looked to be around 36 pairs, redshank in the early teens and the same with avocet. We’re just awaiting the exact data but I can say with confidence that not only did we have good breeding numbers, more importantly we had an excellent fledgling rate.
I took the tractor on the marsh from the building to the scrape (for some reason you can drive straight up to the birds in the tractor and they don’t mind, the don’t like the truck though). I counted 7 lapwing chicks within that 200 meters. That’s a fantastic amount.
The avocets were the only casualty. The islands that they and some of the gulls were nesting on were raided by a fox, only three chicks fledged. We have since fenced these islands and so hope for better numbers next year.
So, why are we so happy about this? Well its obviously good to see chicks survive and as mentioned these species only need a good few years occasionally. We havn’t had a good year for at least 9 years and that is one in a much longer time. It is a step in the right direction for us, we have new processes in place to cope with the new conditions that we find ourselves in within a very urban south Hampshire. I feel confident that going forward, we can start boosting the local population and when you look at Farlington within the local landscape, it is a good place for these birds to then spread east to Hayling and Thorney island where there is potential habitat and north towards the South Downs. We hope to work with other organisations to coordinate wader management within these areas to make sure that we can see these birds in years to come.
We have already started our next round of works to improve the nesting potential. I’m confident that 36 pairs can increase significantly as there is plenty of space, we just need to open it up. Before autumn I had a digger come in and repair some of our weirs and grade some of our ditches which had become steep sided over the years and less suitable for waders. We also cleared some ditches to allow the flow of water off the areas flooded by sea water. This will help us wit the reed control.
Recently we have worked hard on the northern fields, reverting them from scrub and thick rush with giant boundary hedges to a patchy mosaic of short and long swards, with low, dense boundary hedges that will hide people but provide nesting habitat for our small passerines. I am very pleased with the work as, though it may look dramatic at the moment, the potential here to provide homes for so many more species is great. Currently I am very hopeful for some redshank nesting within one of the fields, something that I have never witnessed.
Over the next few years we shall look more intensely at predator management and whether we need to start putting in electric fencing for this. We shall also be looking at creating more standing water and wet flushes within the spring through new ditch works.
Its all very exciting and I am very hopeful for the next few years.