Our birds on the Deben – what can we do to help them? Focus on the redshank

By Sally Westwood

In 2021, Suffolk Coast & Heath Area of Natural Beauty (AONB) selected the Redshank1 as their flagship bird as a part of their Nature Recovery Plan2. Commendably, they called for volunteers to help with the project of protecting the Redshank including their nesting habitat. Redshanks are present on the River Deben but I have only ever seen one feeding along the river’s edge, on my river walk. I thought it might be interesting for the reader to have some insight on the background of Suffolk Coast & Heath AONB’s Nature Recovery intervention and the plight not only of the Redshank, but as we might have suspected, a considerable number of species of birds, that visit the Deben. It is not a comfortable read, however, the good news is, steps are being taken to stop the decline in species.

The government published a policy paper declaring its aims for a 25 Year Environment Plan in January 20183.The main aim of the plan was the development of a ‘Nature Recovery Network to protect and restore wildlife, and provide opportunities to reintroduce species that we have lost from our countryside’4. The following year the State of Nature 20195 report provided a view of the state of wildlife at that time. Much of the report documented the decline in all species in every taxonomic group, including fungi and lichens, plants, invertebrates and vertebrates. It described the pressures on nature, such as urbanisation, unsustainable fishing, invasive species, and pollution, and the response provided for nature, such as reintroduction schemes for species previously lost, and habitat restoration. There has been conservation initiatives, for example with the reintroduction of the Red Kite6, and creation of new wetland habitat, unfortunately this has occurred against a backdrop of new building on thousands of hectares (ha) of wetland, woodland and farmland, to address the increasing requirements of an urbanised population.

The National Association of Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, published their Colchester Declaration 20197 on nature in AONBs, arguing for a strategy of change. They provided three deadlines for AONBs, including to create a Nature Recovery Plan by July 2020; to provide management plans for climate change adaptation by 2024, and they specified the number of acres to be set aside for specific aims, for example, ‘200,000 ha in AONBs will be in favourable condition’ which means it would be a wildlife-rich area and importantly, for the Redshank, the flagship species and other species relevant to particular AONBs:

“That, by each AONB immediately adopting a species on the threatened list and by preparing and delivering a Species Action Plan, at least thirty species relevant to AONBs will be taken off the list by 20308.”

It seems then, that the adoption of the Redshank by Suffolk Coast & Heath AONB was a result of the NAAONB’s 20199 declaration that all AONB’s should have a Nature Recovery Plan and a Species Action Plan.

The government later expanded on its earlier ideas on the recovery of nature and published the Nature Recovery Network10 policy document, in October 2020. It called for organisations to join the network as a partner and use positive action to conserve species. Suffolk Coast & Heath AONB become a partner to help with the Nature Recovery initiative. Indeed, many groups and organisations also joined as partners to help with this important government initiative, including well-known organisations, such as the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). Several organisations, such as the BTO, have provided research evidence about the current state of birds in the UK11, that have helped to bring about government policy. A Nature Recovery Plan within each AONB as instructed by the Colchester Declaration 201912 was regarded by Suffolk Coast & Heath AONB as being central to the Nature Recovery Network13.

The Environment Act 202114 became law on 10 November 2021. Within this legislation the government stipulated long-term plans for nature that are legally binding. It has been described as a landmark Act for nature conservation. The Act contains three important elements that are crucial to our environment and every species that lives in our environment. Firstly, Local Planning Authorities will have to take into account the environment and nature in their planning systems, since biodiversity gain is now a condition of all planning permission15. Secondly, Local Nature Recovery Strategies are to be set up for nature’s recovery. Thirdly, species conservation strategies will also be introduced. Another area of the Act that I rather like the sound of is that the felling of trees in England will require consultation before felling can take place. In a press release when the Act became law, the government declared that the Act ‘will halt the decline in species by 2030’16. This is a tremendous statement, if it works. Of course, various members of parliament have praised the Act, such as: ‘The most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth’17.

It is not surprising that the Suffolk Coast & Heath AONB selected the Redshank as their flagship bird for their Species Action Plan. In the 10-year trend between 2008-2018 the Redshank had declined by 19% (Table 1) and it is regarded as of moderate concern18 (BTO, 2020). Others birds we are likely to see on or near the Deben are also regarded as of moderate concern. These include the Greylag Goose19, the Mute Swan20, Gadwall21, Mallard22, Teal23, Swift24, Oystercatcher25, Snipe26, Common Sandpiper27, Common Tern28, Marsh Harrier29, Kingfisher30 and Kestrel31. The Swift has declined by 41% and the Kestrel by 26% since 1970.

Table 1: Trends for breeding birds of moderate concern in England32

Species 10 yr trend 2008-2018 Long-term trend 1970-2018 Estimate of current population
Redshank 0 -19 22,000
Greylag Goose   14 47,000
Mute Swan 219 21 7,000
Gadwall   129 1,250-3,200
Mallard 86 -7 61,000-145,000
Teal   55 2,700-4,750
Swift   -41 59,000
Oystercatcher   -11 95,500
Snipe   -9 66,500
Common Sandpiper -51 -9 13,000
Common Tern   80 11,000
Marsh Harrier   36 590-695
Kingfisher -12 -8 3,850-6,400
Kestrel -48 -26 31,000

But rather more alarming, four birds that we do see or hear, on or near the Deben, the Turtle Dove33, Lapwing34, Cuckoo35, and Curlew36 are of high concern (Table 2). The Lapwing has declined by 64%, the Curlew by 64% and the Turtle Dove by 98%, since 197037. What is even more cause for concern, is the current status of the Turtle Dove which has declined by 82% and the Cuckoo by 53% in the last 10 years. The estimate of the current population of Turtle Doves visiting the UK stands at 3,600 individuals.

The Curlew appears to have a reasonable estimate of current breeding population at 58,500, until we hear that they are having considerable problems with finding sufficient and safe nesting habitat and tend not to be successful rearing youngsters. I have seen a pair of adult Curlews on my patch of the Deben over recent years but never any juveniles. I would have hoped to see more Curlews, since 150,000 Curlews overwinter around the UK coastline, such as the Deben38. Curlews are unlikely to breed along the river bank, since they tend to breed in the Northern Uplands on farmland and require several farms for their foraging39. The breeding situation is also difficult for the Turtle Dove and the Lapwing since they also breed on farmland. The Cuckoo, on the other hand, nests in woodland and they may breed in woodlands near to the Deben. I observed three Cuckoos last year, flying back and forth across the river, from the woodland at Sutton Hoo. A male and female were seen sitting close to each on a branch high up in a tree. They may have produced young.

Table 2: Trends for breeding birds of high concern in England38

Species 10 yr trend 2008-2018 Long-term trend 1970-2018 Estimate of current population
Lapwing -33 -64 97,500
Curlew -14 -64 58,500
Turtle Dove -82 -98 3,600
Cuckoo -53 13 18,000

We can help the Suffolk Coast & Heath AONB with their flagship bird, the Redshank, when we walk along the river bank, and when we are sailing in our boats. A major negative impact on wader population on the whole, appears to be human disturbance to areas where they feed and rest, and where they nest. Like us, of course they need their space on the land and when in the water. Let’s be mindful of Redshanks, and all waders when we enjoy our time along the river bank or in our boats on the river. I have seen other waders, such as the Great Crested Grebe, Mallards, and Mute Swans with their young on the Deben. The Great Crested Grebe carry their young on their backs, whereas, as you probably know Mallards and Mute Swans move along with their youngsters on the river. It is important to be mindful of birds when canoeing, paddleboarding and kayaking on the Deben. The River Deben Association (RDA) has advised that we need to stay away from breeding, feeding and roosting areas, at any time of the year. If birds take flight as you pass, you are probably too close and causing them unnecessary stress, which may impact negatively on the ability to survive. The RDA has published maps showing the most sensitive wildlife areas that should be avoided.

Suffolk Coast & Heath AONB’s adoption of the Redshank and activities to conserve this particular species means we may encounter volunteers along the river bank handing out leaflets about the Redshank, or they may let us know about nearby nest sites of these ground nesting waders. We also need to be mindful, when on our woodland walks near the Deben, such as the woodland at Sutton Hoo. It may be that the Cuckoos that visit our area are breeding in woodlands and we should do our best not to disturb nesting birds in the trees.

It would be magnificent if the Nature Recovery initiative set up by the government, supported by Suffolk Coast & Heath AONB, and other organisations all over the UK; the Environment Act 2021, and the three elements in the strategy for change in AONBs, including Suffolk, worked, and there is a halt in the decline in species.

Readers may like to check the maps showing particularly sensitive areas to avoid – whether on foot or by boat: https://www.riverdeben.org/news/wildlife/protecting-wildlife-when-canoeing-kayaking-and-paddleboarding-on-the-deben/

Sally Westwood

Sally Westwood is a Psychologist, and works as a researcher. She has taught in higher education as an English Language teacher. Her interests are varied. She has written many articles for Bird Magazines and Journals. She is also a professional bird photographer. Birds are her passion. She loves to draw and paint birds. She lives on a boat on the Deben and loves to sit and be with the birds, simply watching and photographing birds, in their daily activities.


1 Tringa totanus.

2 Suffolk Coast & Healths AONB. (n.d.) Nature recovery. Available: https://www.suffolkcoastandheaths.org/managing/conservation-and-enhancement/nature-recovery/ [Retrieved 2 February 2022].

3 gov.uk. (2018) A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment. Available: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/693158/25-year-environment-plan.pdf [Retrieved 5 February 2022].

4 As above, p. 56.

5 Hayhow, D. B. Eaton, M. A. Stanbury, A. J. Burns, F. Kirby, W. B. Bailey, N. Beckmann. B. Bedford, J. Boersch-Supan, P. H. Coomber, F. Dennis, E. B. Dolman, S. J. Dunn, E. Hall, J. Harrower, C. Hatfield, J. H. Hawley, J. Haysom, K. Hughes, J. Johns, D. G. Mathews, F. McQuatters-Gollop, A. Noble, D. G. Outhwaite, C. L. Pearce-Higgins, J. W. Pescott, O. L. Powney, G. D. and Symes, N. (2019) The State of Nature 2019. The State of Nature partnership.

6 Carter, I. & Grice, P. (2002) Red kite Reintroduction Programme in England. English Nature Research Reports.

7 The National Association Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. (2019) Colchester Declaration 2019. Available:  https://landscapesforlife.org.uk/application/files/7216/1117/5782/The_Colchester_Declaration.pdf [Retrieved 4 February 2022].

8 As above,The National Association Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (2019).

9 As above, The National Association Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (2019).

10 gov.uk. (2020). Nature Recovery Network.  Available: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/25-year-environment-plan [Retrieved 1 February 2022].

11 BTO. (2020) The State of the UK’s Birds. Available:  https://www.bto.org/sites/default/files/publications/state-of-uk-birds-2020-report.pdf [Retrieved 2 February 2022].

12 As above, The National Association Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (2019).

13 As above, Suffolk Coast & Healths AONB (n.d.).

14 gov.uk. (2021) Environment Act 2021. Available: https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2021/30/pdfs/ukpga_20210030_en.pdf [Retrieved 1 February 2022].

15 As above, Part 6(98), 2021, p. 101.

16 gov.uk. (2021) World-leading Environment Act becomes law. Available: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/world-leading-environment-act-becomes-law [Retrieved 1 February].

17 As above, George Eustice, Environment Secretary.

18 As above, BTO, 2020.

19 Anser anser.

20 Cygnus olor.

21 Mareca strepera.

22 Anas platyrhynchos.

23 Anas crecca.

24 Apus apus.

25 Haematopus.

26 Gallinago gallinago.

27 Actitis hypoleucos.

28 Sterna hirundo.

29 Circus aeruginosus.

30 Alcedo atthis.

31 Falco tinnunculus.

32 Adapted from BTO, 2020; Figures are percentages.         

33 Streptopelia turtur.

34 Vanellus vanellus.

35 Cuculus canorus.

36 Numenius arquata.

37 As above, BTO, 2020.

38 Northern Upland Chain Local Nature Partnership. (n.d.) Managing Habitat for Curlews. Advice for farmers and land managers. Available: https://www.nuclnp.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Curlew-Advisery-Leaflet.pdf#:~:text=Curlews%20prefer%20to%20nest%20in%20rough%20pasture%20where,%28i.e.%20groups%20of%20farms%20working%20together%29%20is%20required [Retrieved 8 February 2022].

39 As above, BTO, 2020.

40 Adapted from BTO, 2020; Figures are percentages.