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.
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.
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.
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.
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 – firstname.lastname@example.org