Russ and Marcus write:
In spring 2020, Wild New Forest was commissioned by Forestry England to undertake a full survey of breeding waders on the Crown Lands of the New Forest, with a view to testing the hypothesis that reduced recreational use and associated disturbance due to COVID-19 access restrictions would lead to changes in the distribution, behaviour and productivity of these species. The Executive Summary of the report is copied below, and the full version can be downloaded here:
In spring 2020, the initiation of access restrictions in the New Forest on 23 March, as part of nationwide COVID-19 lockdown measures, provided a rare opportunity to assess whether reduced recreational use and associated disturbance would lead to changes in the distribution, behaviour and productivity of breeding waders in the New Forest Special Protection Area (SPA).
Fieldwork was conducted over three separate visits between 10 Apr and 15 June 2020, totalling over 400 hours of effort. All suitable wader habitat in 15 pre-defined areas, covering 106 one-kilometre squares and some additional contiguous habitat, was covered by two surveyors walking a total distance of 1000 km.
The results indicate that the breeding wader assemblage in the New Forest SPA is currently in the order of 270 territories, representing a major decline compared to previous surveys over the last three decades that all recorded between 340 and 400 territories; this change in status has mostly been driven by declines in the Curlew and Lapwing population to 48 and 61 territories, respectively, as Snipe numbers appear stable at 151 territories and Redshank numbers have remained relatively low with just seven territories in 2020.
Although a detailed assessment of wader productivity was outside the scope of this survey, additional fieldwork was undertaken in June and July as part of a wider effort to monitor Curlew productivity, co-ordinated by Forestry England. No more than four Curlew nests generated fledged chicks, consistent with data from previous years – this poor productivity is clearly a major driver of the observed population decline. Lapwing productivity also appeared to be rather low, although more chicks and fledglings were observed than for Curlew, no doubt aided by their ability to make multiple nesting attempts in a season. All Redshank breeding attempts are known to have failed. Snipe fledging success was not monitored due to practical constraints.
Based on this and other recent research conducted in 2016-18, the primary controls on wader populations, distributions and productivity in the New Forest SPA are considered to be 1) management and grazing regimes, 2) predation of eggs, chicks and occasionally adults, 3) acute and persistent hydro-meteorological phenomena, and 4) recreational disturbance.
Recreational disturbance was observed to be a persistent issue in some areas, particularly in the southern New Forest close to settlements and tourist hubs; numbers of observed recreational users almost doubled after access restrictions were eased on 11 May 2020, at a time when many ground-nesting birds were nesting, and there was evidence for breeding waders being negatively impacted by the influx of recreational users in several areas, e.g. Hatchet Pond.
However, the earlier period of access restrictions and associated car park closures, as well as seasonal and extended car park closures in locations close to breeding wader territories, were observed to have a positive impact on Curlew distribution, behaviour and (potentially) productivity; Curlews were observed utilising habitats adjacent to closed car parks and in areas with high recreational use (e.g. extensive lawns) throughout the March-to-July breeding cycle, that would normally have been avoided in previous years.
The heterogenous distribution of all four wader species is shown to be closely tied to their specific habitat requirements, with distinct clusters in some areas; future management interventions could therefore benefit from focussing on areas where these clusters are shown to overlap with high densities of potential predators and recreational users, e.g. Beaulieu Heath (East and West).
As a footnote, the results of this report, and of previous surveys undertaken since 2016 by Wild New Forest and HOS in partnership with Forestry England, are informing recreational management actions - these include public engagement activities, targeted signage, and seasonal car park closures to establish 'quiet zones' in areas utilised by breeding waders (see links below):
Wild New Forest are continuing to monitor the New Forest breeding wader population in partnership with Forestry England, and are supporting new research activities including satellite-tracking of Curlews co-ordinated by Pete Potts (Farlington Ringing Group), Andrew Hoodless (GWCT) and Elli Rivers (Bournemouth University):
Finally, thanks to Leanne Sergeant and Andy Page of Forestry England for supporting this work, and to everyone who has kindly provided records of breeding waders in recent years.