Upland land use predicts population decline in a globally near-threatened wader

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Summary

  1. Changes in large-scale land use may fragment and degrade habitats, affecting animal species adapted to these habitats. In the UK uplands for example, changes in sheep and game management, and afforestation, have altered the configuration of internationally important moorland habitat and are predicted to have increased predation pressure for a globally unique suite of breeding birds of international conservation importance.
  2. Some of these upland bird species have declined, with particular concern over ground-nesting waders. Using resurveys of the rapidly declining Eurasian curlew Numenius arquata as a focal species of global conservation concern, we investigate whether upland land use predicts low nesting success and population decline.
  3. Curlew population changes over an 8- to 10-year period were positively related to gamekeeper density (a surrogate of predator control intensity) and inversely to the area of woodland surrounding sites, as a likely source of predators to adjacent open ground. Model predictions suggest that increasing woodland cover from 0% to 10% of the land area within 1 km of populated sites requires an increase in human predator control effort of about 48%, to a level associated with high-intensity grouse production, to achieve curlew population stability.
  4. Curlew nesting success, known to be a key driver of population trends, was also positively related to gamekeeper density and inversely to woodland area surrounding sites, providing a plausible mechanistic link between land use and population change.
  5. Synthesis and applications. Upland land use is associated with curlew declines, with predation a likely mechanism, and this may apply to other breeding waders. The removal of isolated woodland plantations from otherwise unafforested landscapes may help reduce predation pressure across a range of systems including moorland. However, direct predator control may also be important to conserve ground-nesting birds in these landscapes, for example, where moorland management and forestry coexist as major land uses. Predator control may also mitigate climate change effects by enhancing wader productivity, particularly where climate effects coincide with changing land use. Emerging land uses in open landscapes, including native woodland restoration and wind farms, require careful siting to minimize further impacts on open-area breeding birds.

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