Black-tailed Godwit flying high in Utrecht
Sustainable grassland management, as the result of cooperation between nature conservationists and farmers in the Eempolder Nature Reserve in the Netherlands, has brought good news for Black-tailed Godwits and breeding waders.
The Eempolder Nature Reserve is a peatland polder founded in the 1980s, spanning some 500 hectares alongside the river Eem, in the Dutch province of Utrecht. The polder belongs to the flood area of the former Zuiderzee – a large inland sea that existed from the late Middle Ages to the early 1930s, when dike construction split the sea into the IJsselmeer and the Wadden Sea.
Many species of meadow birds found a happy home in this newly created landscape – lapwings, black-tailed godwits, oystercatchers and redshanks came to breed, while migratory birds such as plovers, snipes, swans and geese found a perfect pit stop along their autumn migration journey.
However, years of poor land management in the Eemland region – as a result of intensive agriculture –had a terrible knock-on effect on local fauna and flora. In 2001, only a few solitary pairs of Black-tailed Godwits were left.
That same year, Natuurmonumenten, a Dutch nature conservation organisation, took over management of the reserve. The water table was adjusted to suit the needs of breeding waders and the openness of the landscape was restored. Several plasdrassen (shallow waters) were created for waders to rest, sleep, preen and feed. The banks of the ditches were lowered to a height of 30cm over a distance of 158 km and a system of weirs and solar-pumps were installed to manage water levels – important measures for good foraging, especially during dry periods. During breeding season, the water levels are lowered to slow down vegetation growth and to improve feeding conditions for the birds.
The meadows were leased to around 40 local farmers on a yearly base – and on the strict condition that they implement bird-friendly farming practices, specifically to attract waders. For example, for set quotas of the grasslands, the schedule for mowing and cattle grazing must work around the birds’ breeding-season. Thanks to these efforts, SOVON – the Dutch organisation for monitoring birds – was able to report that the population of Black-tailed-Godwit increased from 115 pairs in 2002 to 434 pairs in 2017.
Historically, in the Netherlands, conservationists and farmers have had a challenging relationship. Notably, just 2% of the country’s 1 million ha of grassland is officially protected for breeding waders. It is therefore not surprising that the key to this particular success has been the excellent personal relationship between the nature reserve’s conservation manager, Jan Roodhart and the participating farmers. Because Roodhart himself was local farmer in the area, he was able to build upon an existing relationship with his former fellow farmers. The lesson we must learn here is that trust is needed on both sides. The return of Black-tailed godwits to Eempolder is an inspiring example of what can be achieved when we work together.
Gerrit Gerritsen – Senior Meadow Bird Conservationist, VBN/Birdlife Netherlands
Jan Roodhart – manager of the Eemland-reserve of Natuurmonumenten.
 A polder is a low-lying tract of land – synonymous with a large part of the Netherlands – which has been reclaimed from the sea or other body of water or and protected by dikes.