Meadow birds - LIFE

Meadow birds - turning the negative trend on the island of Saltholm by
restoration of short-grazed meadows
by Ole Thorup
After five years of supplementary mowing directed at vegetation around wetlands and
gullies in former key breeding sites of ruffs, dunlins and natterjack toads, the LIFEBaltCoast project in the spring 2011 achieved its goal: Re-establishment of a meadow
management that keeps these meadows with short grass and thereby attractive for the
three target species. This made experienced Saltholm ornithologists express: ‘The island
is like transformed. It might be 50 years ago the meadows were short-grazed like this. And
the transformation benefits the meadow birds’ (BirdLife Denmark (DOF) newsletter:
http://www.dof.dk/index.php?id=nyheder&s=nyheder&m=visning&nyhed_id=932).
Background
Structural changes in animal farming during in recent years, with increasingly more cattle
kept in or near their stables and hay becoming of less importance as fodder, are creating
difficulties in managing meadows properly for meadow birds and toads. Particular
challenges are found at sites where large meadows are situated in places with
complicated access for animals and man.
Saltholm is a 1600 ha island situated in Öresund between Copenhagen and Malmö. From
the 1960es to the 1990es up to 1100 cattle summer-grazed Saltholm and in the ‘golden
age’ of meadowbirds in the late 1970es and early 1980es more than 1000 pairs of
meadow breeding shorebirds could be found here including 10-20 pairs of dunlin and 3060 females of ruff.
During the 2000s it became more and more complicated to achieve summer-grazers and
the grazing regime gradually shifted to a lower number of whole-year grazers.
At the beginning of the LIFE-BaltCoast project in 2005-06 the number of summer-grazers
was down at 150 and in addition 300 adult and 150-250 calves grazed permanently. The
average grazing pressure on the island was still quite high, but by inspection it became
clear that an unwanted overgrowth had taken place of some of the formerly best areas for
the most vulnerable meadow birds dunlin and ruff on the northwest and north-central parts
of Saltholm.
This unfortunate situation was mirrored in the declining numbers of in particular breeding
dunlins. In 1995 there were still 8 pairs, in 2000-2006 the number dropped to 1-2 pairs and
at a thorough survey in 2007 no breeding dunlins were found at all for the first time in the
hundred years the bird fauna has been regularly monitored.
www.life-baltcoast.eu
contact: Stiftung Naturschutz Schleswig-Holstein
project manager: Hauke Drews
email: [email protected]
In the same period there were no further records of natterjack toad, a species sharing very
much its demands to the breeding habitat with dunlin and ruff, and the species was most
likely at the brink of extinction.
Project strategy
The main aims of the LIFE-BaltCoast project were to
• restore the short grassed halophytic meadows with partly overgrown small pools and
gullies inside the western shore on the northern part of the island
• remove the high and lush vegetation surrounding the central wetlands on the northern
half of Saltholm. This strong vegetation prevents the use of the wetlands by meadow
birds like ruff, and in addition high vegetation favours an important predator of
meadow bird chicks the herring gull, which breeds abundantly and successful in such
vegetation
• ensure that the present core area for meadow birds like black-tailed godwit, ruff and
redshank in a by and large gull free area in central Saltholm keeps its favourable
vegetation height and structure
Actions
There were basically two potential ways to achieve the wanted shift in grazing pattern of
the cattle: by force (specific fencing) or by attraction. The LIFE-BaltCoast project tried the
second way: to attract the cattle to graze in the targeted areas. A quite simple adjustment
was to move the site where winter-feeding of the cattle with local hay took place closer to
the areas targeted for more grazing.
A more laborious action was to create a cyclic mowing schedule in the targeted areas
adjacent to the central wetlands and the slow growing halophytic vegetation to the
northwest, areas otherwise unprofitable for achieving good hay and partly also on uneven
ground difficult to mow. Immediately after such areas are mown they become very
attractive to grazing cattle.
In the first place it was considered to add an action with removal of harsh vegetation
including litter from some of the depressions in the meadow bird core area However, an
evaluation in the summer 2011 showed that during the intensive winter and spring
grazing that year, cattle had removed almost all of that type of vegetation.
In the first place it was considered to add an action with removal of harsh vegetation
including litter from some of the depressions in the meadowbird core area. However, an
evaluation in the summer 2011 showed that during the intensive winter and spring
grazing that year, cattle had removed almost all of that type of vegetation. An unusually
wet autumn, cold and snowy winter and dry spring 2010-2011 with reduced vegetation
growth contributed to the efficient removal of the unwanted vegetation.
www.life-baltcoast.eu
contact: Stiftung Naturschutz Schleswig-Holstein
project manager: Hauke Drews
email: drews[email protected]
Success
In 2010 and 2011 the aim was achieved: The targeted areas have both been restored
and are dominated by short grass.
In 2010 a large evaluation bird survey was performed and the good state of vegetation
management was also reflected in the number of vulnerable meadow birds. One pair of
breeding dunlin was found for the first time since 2006, and at a quite brief survey in 2011
two pairs of dunlins were found of which one was seen with chicks. In 2010 also a record
high number of breeding black-tailed godwits were seen, 18-26 pairs, and even more
promising a minimum of 18 pairs had hatching success that year.
Another gratifying result is the fact that ruffs continuously breed on Saltholm. During the
last ten years this species has declined dramatically everywhere in Western Europe, and
ruffs have disappeared from most of its temperate breeding sites. Apparently targeted
management pays for the species, and both in 2010 and 2011 6 breeding females were
recorded on Saltholm. This island must now be far the most important coastal site for the
species in the Baltic. In Denmark only Tipperne in western Jylland has more breeding
ruffs, and this is the only site where management for many years has been specifically
directed at suiting the ruff. The Saltholm population constitutes more the 10% of the
Danish total, and one third of the ruffs outside the Danish bird reserve Tipperne.
Photos 1 to 4 on following page
www.life-baltcoast.eu
contact: Stiftung Naturschutz Schleswig-Holstein
project manager: Hauke Drews
email: [email protected]
Photo 1: Overgrown central wetlands July 2006. In the past
important breeding site for ruff and many other
meadowbirds, in 2006 a favourable breeding site for
large numbers of herring gull – an important predator
on meadowbird chicks (photo by Hauke Drews)
Photo 2: The central wetlands in June 2011. Mowing
specifically directed at removing the lush vegetation
here and grazing have created an open meadow,
not very attractive to herring gulls as chicks can
no more hide, and now suitable for meadowbirds
(photo by Martin Altemüller)
Photo 3: From 2006 to 2009 the halophytic vegetation
Photo 4: In June 2011 the aim has been achieved. All over
between the central wetlands and the west coast
tthe halophytic vegetation has become short, and the dunlin
gradually became more open due to grazing and mowing. iback as a breeding bird. Two pairs were found in 2011.
But in June 2009 several pools and gullies were still
(photo by Martin Altemüller)
surrounded by vegetation 10-20 cm high. Not a perfect
vegetation structure for e.g. dunlins. (photo by Martin
Altemüller)
www.life-baltcoast.eu
contact: Stiftung Naturschutz Schleswig-Holstein
project manager: Hauke Drews
email: [email protected]