Spoonbills rebound as UK farmers bolster tree cover and wetlands

<span>Photograph: Chris Radburn/PA</span>
Photograph: Chris Radburn/PA

With their striking long beaks and elegant white plumage, the spoonbill looks like it belongs somewhere far more exotic than the windswept saltmarshes of the UK.

But the large wading bird is enjoying a boom in numbers as landowners across the country improve wetland habitats and tree cover.

Once common across England and Wales, the spoonbill was hunted to local extinction about 300 years ago. They were killed for their beautiful feathers and their meat was a delicacy enjoyed at medieval banquets.

But in 2010, a colony was discovered on the saltmarshes in north Norfolk, thought to have made the journey over from the Netherlands and France.

Wandering over the marshes to feast on shrimp and small fish, they sometimes spent time and nested on the patch of Andrew Bloomfield, who manages the national nature reserve at the Holkham estate.

Thrilled with the beautiful visitors, he worked with Natural England and the RSPB among others to ensure they came back each year. They now want to double the size of the spoonbill’s nesting area, creating ditches and islands with trees to try to future-proof the colony. Other birds including several species of egret will also benefit from the extension. This year, they boasted a record 77 young from 43 pairs of spoonbills.

Eurasian spoonbill in flight
A Eurasian spoonbill in flight. The species is attracted to a freshwater habitat. Photograph: Ger Bosma/Alamy

Now the birds have spread across the UK, and breeding pairs and colonies can be found in eight locations, from the south coast to just outside Leeds. The colonies this year included four sites in Norfolk, one in Yorkshire, one in Cumbria, one in Essex and one in Suffolk.

Last week, Bloomfield hosted a group of conservationists to see if the population could be boosted further and to raise awareness of the birds’ habitat requirements so more landowners could attract them.

“We actually have an idea of where they used to be around the country from looking at estate banquet details from the Middle Ages,” he said.

“It was great to have everyone who had spoonbills come together in one room. Most of them nest in trees but there is a quirkiness to each place. You need a wood where herons and similar birds could nest, and you need plentiful food nearby. They feed on things like shrimps, prawns, sticklebacks and even eels.”

Creating, maintaining and improving wetlands creates important carbon sinks and habitat for many animals, some of which make up the diet of rare wading birds.

“Here in north Norfolk we are lucky because the saltmarshes are in protected areas. To attract spoonbills, it’s about creating good freshwater habitats, having areas free from disturbance where they can nest and settle, and having an eye on recreational use that could create levels of disturbance that could affect not only spoonbills but other wading birds.” he said.

Bloomfield said the country was experiencing an increase “without question”, adding: “Our colony is very successful, it’s been in existence since 2010 and the success rate of youngsters each year has increased, that’s enabled them to spread to other places as well.

“All the wetland work that has been done in the UK will play a part in safeguarding a lot of birds that are moving across from the continent because of global warming.

“We even get spoonbills wintering sometimes in the UK, which would have been unheard of 50 to 100 years ago, as the weather is much milder than it used to be. Nature conservation has to take into account the new species we are attracting due to climate change.”