Two conservation strategies have been put in place in Europe to address precipitous population declines of wading birds that breed on lowland wet grasslands. These are site protection and agri-environment schemes (AESs) and the two are rarely compared, or their synergy assessed. Increasingly, efforts to recover populations of previously widespread species follow a landscape-scale approach whereby habitat improvement takes place at key sites through partially overlapping protected area management and AESs. To investigate whether site protection and AESs improve the conservation status of breeding waders and how these interact, we partially repeated a 2002 survey of breeding waders on protected areas (nature reserves and Sites of Special Scientific Interest) and sites with wader-specific AES options in England in 2009 and 2010. We then assessed the individual and combined effects of these delivery mechanisms on field occupancy, breeding density and population change of four species of declining wader (Northern Lapwing Vanellus vanellus, Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago, Eurasian Curlew Arquata numenius and Common Redshank Tringa totanus). Although results for Curlew differed from the other species, in general field occupancy was positively influenced by conservation delivery mechanisms, with the highest occupancy and breeding densities on land where site protection was combined with wader-specific AES options. Field occupancy varied between different types of AES, with higher occupancy associated with higher-level options in fields, particularly those on nature reserves. Outside nature reserves, the history of AES management did not influence wader populations, but within nature reserves and on fields that gained AES management between 2002 and 2009–2010, populations of Curlew and Snipe were more likely to have persisted and population change in Snipe and Lapwing was more positive. We conclude that the conservation of breeding waders will be most effective when site protection and AES management are combined on the same land. Using limited AES money to support management for breeding waders on, around and between the existing network of protected sites will protect remaining populations while presenting opportunities for population expansion in future.