Head-starting: Hands-on Conservation

In this latest blog we learn more about head-starting and hear from Senior Conservation Breeding Officer Nicky Hiscock.

Project Godwit has a whole host of fascinating people, with years of experience in the conservation field, working on it to restore the numbers of black-tailed godwits breeding in the fens. Project managers who have worked on many species reintroduction and conservation programmes oversee the project, from working out logistics, organising funding, and supporting all the staff involved. Nature reserve wardens from The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) and The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) are managing habitat to create the perfect home for godwits on the project sites. Research experts closely monitor the behaviour and numbers of the godwits and their potential predators. Volunteers diligently report sightings of godwits and photograph the project. Engagement staff and volunteers drum up support and interest from local communities, and a team of aviculturists – people who specialise in breeding and caring for captive birds – conduct the head-starting, the part of the project which captures the most amount of attention and intrigue from the public.

A headstarted black-tailed godwit named Earith. Photo by Jonathan Taylor.

Head-starting is a conservation technique for endangered species, in which young animals are raised artificially and then released into the wild. It is often done with birds but there are projects using head-starting with rare amphibians such as the pool frog in the UK and reptiles like fresh water turtle species in the USA.

Project Godwit collects wild black-tailed godwit eggs from the RSPB Nene Washes, where there are relatively good numbers of godwit nests but sadly a very low chick survival rate. They are then transported to WWT Welney Wetland Centre where they are raised in a specially built bio-secure breeding facility before being released onto the Ouse Washes and back at the Nene Washes. A team of highly experienced aviculturists from WWT Slimbridge Wetland Centre come to WWT Welney for three months to care for the captive godwits and prepare them for release. The project began in 2017 and 26 head-started godwits were released that year. The following year 36 godwits were released and in 2019 48 godwits were released.

A black-tailed godwit chick in the breeding facility at WWT Welney.

The process of transporting the eggs to WWT Welney is hair-raising. The team have to drive painfully slowly over the fenland roads (which are not known for their smoothness) in order for the eggs to reach their destination undamaged.

WWT have used head-starting before to save species of birds on the brink of extinction, including the spoon-billed sandpiper, the eurasian crane, and more recently the curlew.

Nicky Hiscock is the Senior Conservation Breeding Officer who coordinates the godwit head-starting at WWT Welney. She began working for WWT as a Seasonal Aviculturist working on the Great Crane Project, a project that successfully released 93 cranes over 5 years on the Somerset Levels having head-started them at Slimbridge.

Common crane chick reared at WWT Slimbridge using adult crane costumes.

Cranes are sociable birds that imprint on their parents and depend on them to show them how to feed for themselves and survive. This meant the aviculturists had to disguise their human forms when working with the crane chicks to ensure they imprinted on something that resembled a crane and not a person.

Fortunately godwits chicks are surprisingly independent and within a few hours of hatching they know what to do and how to look for food, so although it may be fun, there’s no need for the staff at Welney to disguise themselves as godwits.

Nicky also worked on WWT’s famous head-starting and breeding programme for the spoon-billed sandpiper, a tiny migratory wetland bird that in the year 2000 plummeted to fewer than 200 pairs worldwide. Using head-starting on the spoon-billed sandpiper breeding grounds in Russia, WWT staff managed to increase the number of successful fledglings by 20%.

A spoon-billed sandpiper feeding.

Nicky and her colleagues are on the front line of bird conservation and are conducting a very hands-on form of conservation. When handling precious eggs and having potentially the future of an entire species in your care, the pressure can be high.

One of the difficulties I face is dealing with the doubts that ‘the eggs won’t hatch’ which begin to fill your mind, especially the longer the eggs are under your care. It is not until that first chick hatches that the doubts lift and you start to believe the majority of the eggs will go on to hatch. It wouldn’t take much to lose an incubator full of black-tailed eggs, for example, if there was a power cut which was not observed by the team, so it’s very easy to take the pessimistic view.’ – Nicky Hiscock.

And when the eggs finally do hatch, there are plenty of risks with rearing birds in captivity that the head-starting team have to factor in whilst caring for the birds.

For example, as the godwits are approaching the age at which they would fledge (approximately 30 days old) they begin to test out their flight muscles and practice flying. When in a rearing pen there is a risk of the birds flying into the enclosure boundary and injuring themselves, particularly if they get frightened. Therefore the head-starting team install soft cladding around the hard parts of the outdoor rearing and release pens to avoid this.

There is also a risk of predators being attracted to outdoor sites where birds are being kept. It would be disastrous if a fox or a weasel managed to get into the pens and so electric fences are installed around the pens to protect the godwits.

There are also potential health risks for the birds that the aviculturists have to manage. Sometimes when chicks have too much protein and calories in their diet it can lead to health problems such as split wing or angel wing, which is more commonly seen in geese, ducks and swans. This is a deformity of their flight feathers which would cause them considerable problems in the wild, so the aviculturists closely manage the food available to the chicks.

Nicky and the team work round the clock to look after the birds, and the nature of the job requires them to be multi-skilled. They don’t just need a deep knowledge and understanding of bird husbandry, they also have to build and maintain enclosures, keep meticulous records, source equipment, keep up with admin, follow strict biosecurity protocol, and occasionally find time to eat and sleep.

‘When the godwits are released I usually feel two major feelings:

Relief – that we have been able to put a flock of healthy godwits back in to the wild.

Worry – that we can no longer protect the birds from dangers such as predation.’ – Nicky Hiscock.

Nicky at the breeding facility late at night, caring for godwit chicks round the clock.

Head-starting is often used as a final push to save a species, as it is only really effective on species whose populations are incredibly low. For example, many ask if this is something that could be done for other wading birds in the UK such as lapwing, red-listed birds whose numbers have declined to a worrying level in recent years. But the answer would be no. It takes a lot of time, money, expertise and resources just to head-start 48 godwit chicks (our result in 2019). Over 3 years, the Project has released 112 godwits into the wild, doubling the UK’s population and bringing the breeding pair numbers on the Ouse Washes from 3 to 12, the best it has been for 20 years. The impact on a species with a small population is huge, but on a species such as lapwing, with the current UK breeding population at 140,000 pairs, our efforts wouldn’t scratch the surface.

‘The best moment for me on the job was hearing the news that Earith (a head-started female released at Welney in 2017) had nested and hatched her own chicks (at least three) at the Pilot Project Site on 19 June 2018. The team and I were sat on the sunny balcony at WWT Welney enjoying a celebratory lunch after releasing one of the 2018 cohorts of head-started birds when the news came through, including a gorgeous photo of Earith in flight, taken by Jonathan Taylor, the Site Manager for the Pilot Project site. This news, coupled with the successful release of birds just an hour or so earlier was just great. One of Earith’s chicks returned to the fens in 2019 and recently in 2020. Every subsequent sighting and shared photo of ‘Daughter of Earith’, has resulted in fond memories of this moment.’

A head started godwit in the wild. Photo by Chris O’Riordan.

It’s fair to say that the members of the head-starting team have a very niche job role. In 2019, four aviculturists came to Welney to do the head-starting, Nicky Hiscock, Tony Durkin, Harriet Clarke and Amelia Bennet-Margrave, whilst others stayed in Slimbridge to care for WWT’s conservation breeding collection which includes spoon-billed sandpipers, black-tailed godwits, Baer’s pochard, and curlew. Collectively the team have worked with hundreds of different species all over the world and listening to them speak of their experiences is a real treat for any bird enthusiast.

‘After studying a degree in Biology, I decided to pursue a career in nature conservation. I fell into bird conservation, initially by volunteering at WWT Slimbridge with the reserve team, but looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing.’ – Nicky Hiscock

By Jess Owen – Project Godwit Engagement Officer.

Taking Project Godwit into Schools

Jess Owen, Project Godwit Engagement Officer at WWT Welney, talks about our work to engage local communities. When the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis is over, we look forward to continuing with our engagement work in due course when it is safe to do so, following Government advice.

Class 2 at Denver VC Primary School

For the last three years, WWT Welney Wetland Centre has become a hub of godwit-focused activity in the springtime. Avian breeding experts and scientists from WWT and RSPB have been collecting eggs from wild black-tailed godwits nesting at RSPB Nene Washes in April. They then (carefully) transport them back to Welney Wetland Centre where they are cared for and hatched in a specially built breeding facility. When the chicks are around 30 days old (which is when they are able to fly) they are released at Welney and the Nene Washes. This is a conservation technique known as ‘headstarting’, giving the chicks a head start in life, as the survival of wild godwit chicks in the UK is so low, it is a way of boosting the population.

Black-tailed godwit chicks in the early-stage rearing facility at WWT Welney

This is the first time headstarting has been used for waders in the UK and is a big achievement for fenland wildlife conservation. The total number of headstarted chicks released so far is 112, which is amazing, and the Project Godwit team want to share this exciting news with the people who share the godwits’ fenland home.

Telling the story of godwits and their wetlands

At the start of 2019, Project Godwit began running its school and community outreach programme. The aim of this was to get more local people involved in what has become an innovative species restoration project right on their doorstep for a very rare species in the fens. We began by contacting all the Primary Schools within 20 miles of WWT Welney, offering them the chance to have a free Project Godwit Outreach Session (a Wetland Wildlife Workshop) at their school. The uptake from schools was fantastic and 18 classes from 8 different schools signed up to take part over the spring term.

Years 3 & 4 at Millfield Primary School

When I first enter the classroom, I usually like to ask the children a few questions to see how much they already know, such as – “do you know what wildlife conservation means?” and “what does it mean if a species is rare?”

I was often very impressed with the children’s general knowledge and understanding of global environmental issues and conservation, and some were already budding bird watchers! Most children knew about the plight of polar bears in the Arctic and the dangers faced by rhinos in Africa, but not many of them knew anything about the godwit, an endangered species that lives 20 minutes from their house, or that the wetlands around their homes are a rarity too.

The sessions evolved into interactive presentations that included information about Project Godwit and headstarting, the fenland habitat, wetland birds, and WWT and RSPB reserves. Activities included bird adaption and migration games, videos, wetland habitat and wildlife quizzes, and how to become a ‘Godwit Guardian’. The children particularly enjoyed becoming Godwit Guardians, meaning their class could be linked to one of our headstarted godwits, so they could receive updates on their progress, migration, and if they had found a partner or had chicks of their own.

Inspiring the next generation of conservationists

The enthusiastic responses from children and their teachers towards Project Godwit was overwhelmingly positive. Although the godwits might not have the same wow factor as polar bears or rhinos, these long-beaked leggy brown waders proved to be very popular amongst the local children. ‘Godwits are now my favourite animals’ and ‘I am going to ask my mum if we can visit a wetland at the weekend’ was just some of the fantastic feedback we received from students.

The beak game – which bill is best??

One of the highlights of the engagement programme was when the Year 5’s from Rackham C of E Primary School visited WWT Welney after their visit from Project Godwit. They were given a tour of the breeding facility and were able to see the chicks in their outdoor rearing pens. The children and teachers were so excited to meet the real headstarted godwits that they had seen in the videos and one pupil said she wanted to become a conservationist having seen the project!

All this is happening in a very quiet rural area of Cambridgeshire and it has been wonderful to connect the people of the fens with their amazing wildlife.

If you know of a school or community group who might like to take part in our free outreach sessions or become Godwit Guardians, then please do get in touch – jess.owen@wwt.org.uk

Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update:

During these challenging times, Project Godwit unfortunately has had to make the difficult decision to postpone many project activities for this year. Much of our work involving head-starting, monitoring, community engagement and habitat management has sadly had to be postponed this season due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis. This is to protect the health of our staff, volunteers and the general public, as well as follow Government advice and restrictions.

Project Godwit is discussing with our partners, stakeholders and funders how we can best cope with the impacts of the coronavirus.

For news updates, please also follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, as well as here on the website.

Stay safe and thank you for your support.

The Project Godwit Team