Protection of EAF migratory birds - OTOP


Protection of EAF migratory birds 

Migratory birds – a decline in numbers

Bird migrations are annual phenomena of millions of individuals, some of which travel up to several thousand kilometres per year. We devote our attention at OTOP to these seasonal migrations when arranging regular walks, observations and counts. Aiming to protect migratory birds, OTOP also organises specialised field researches and participates in international projects. 

One of the greatest migration routes running also through Poland is the East Atlantic Flyway (EAF). About 90 million birds pass it every year. The Flyway outstretches from the birds’ breeding grounds located in the North: in the Arctic, Siberia, Fennoscandia, Greenland, Iceland, to their wintering quarters in Western Europe and Africa. The corridor encompasses both breeding and non-breeding grounds, the resting and feeding locations. As the numbers of the EAF migratory birds, especially waders, are both globally and locally declining, preventive mechanisms are needed. 

The remedy: international cooperation

Cross-border cooperation is the key for the protection of migratory birds. If birds do not find the necessary feeding grounds, stopover locations or overwintering grounds in some countries, they may not thrive to breed in other countries. Therefore, in order to coordinate relevant international activities BirdLife International established the East Atlantic Flyway Initiative (EAFI). Under the auspices of EAFI in November 2021 OTOP (as a co-ordinator) together with partners from Iceland (Fuglavernd BirdLife Iceland), Norway (BirdLife Norway) and the naturalists from Belarus started cooperation in the international project Networking for East Atlantic Flyway migratory birds in protected areas of Belarus, Iceland, Norway, and Poland and the project Exchange of Icelandic and Polish experience in peatland restoration for biodiversity and climate.

The aim of the projects was to analyse existing ways of protection and management of the areas being essential for the most endangered migratory waders, in order to develop international guidelines for a more effective birds protection. The decline in numbers of waders that need wetlands also requires knowledge of approaches towards effective active habitat protection. The aim of the projects was therefore to learn how to restore habitats degraded by human activity such as drained peatlands. The projects were also intended to share the knowledge, experience and good practice that each country enjoys despite the differences in the forms and institutions of nature conservation and the differences in waders’ population in every country involved. Another task of the projects was to calibrate in each of the four countries the methodology developed in the UK for selecting areas important for the restoration of populations of migratory waders so that they restore the so-called Favourable Reference Values (FRVs): indicators of no imminent threat to a population, that are also consistent with the EU 2030 Biodiversity Strategy. In order to achieve both projects objectives, field workshops in restored peatland areas of Norway, Iceland, Belarus and Poland, as well as online meetings, were held along with a final conference in Poland. 

The costs of the project „Networking for East Atlantic Flyway migratory birds in protected areas of Belarus, Iceland, Norway, and Poland” were covered by the Nordic Council of Ministers and the funding from the National Fund for Environmental Protection and Water Management (NFOŚiGW) under the EEA and Norway Grants – Bilateral Cooperation Fund of the European Economic Area Financial Mechanism 2014-2021 and the Norwegian Financial Mechanism 2014-2021 under the Environment, Energy and Climate Change Programme.
The costs of the project „Exchange of Icelandic and Polish experience in peatland restoration for biodiversity and climate” were covered by the funding from the National Fund for Environmental Protection and Water Management (NFOŚiGW) and The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

Which species and which habitats to protect?

The project Networking for East Atlantic Flyway migratory birds in protected areas of Belarus, Iceland, Norway, and Poland focused on six species of waders: Baltic Dunlin of the subspecies C. a. schinzii, Black-tailed Godwit, Common Redshank, Common Snipe, Eurasian Curlew and Curlew Sandpiper. These species are on the list of the Multi-Species Action Plans (MSAPs), a major European LIFE project coordinated by BirdLife International, which aims to prevent a decline of the most threatened birds, including above mentioned waders. 

Any protection of a species is effective insofar it protects its habitat so the Networking for East Atlantic Flyway project looked at how well the key habitats of the selected waders are protected. Each of the project partners selected five areas most important for the conservation of waders, which would also have possible conservation/management plans for analysis. It was then checked whether the management plans contained the guidelines necessary for the effective protection of the waders. As it turned out, the plans contained deficiencies, yet other factors were also identified as responsible for insufficient protection of waders. The elaboration on the reasons why areas already designated for the protection of migrating waders are not doing their job well enough would be the first step to bring about changes in the management of these areas. This would be in line with the objectives of the EU 2030 Biodiversity Strategy that claims: significant areas of degraded habitats will be restored, habitats and species will not show declining trends, at least 30% of species will reach a more favourable status or at least demonstrate an increasing trend by 2030. The identification of key areas for waders also showed where conservation efforts should be concentrated, which leads to the protection of the entire biodiversity and water regime in the area.

The first hint for key areas selection was existing network of IBAs, SPAs and ASCI sites. Important Bird Areas (IBAs) are the sites where valuable bird species occur or hold high bird congregations, especially overwintering and migratory birds. The criteria for designation are provided by BirdLife International, and the IBA programme in each country is implemented by its BirdLife partner so it is OTOP in Poland. European Union countries usually protect IBAs as Special Protection Areas (SPAs) within the network of Natura 2000. The Natura 2000 network in Poland also grew out of IBAs. The SPAs (Special Protection Areas) are areas of special protection for wild birds designated by EU Member States, especially for rare, threatened and migratory birds. In practice SPAs are Natura 2000 areas. Another network is Emerald consisting of ASCI (Areas of Special Conservation Interest). Its establishment follows the Bern Convention signed in 1979, which was adopted by the Council of Europe, four African countries, Belarus, Ukraine and the European Union. The network is thus the equivalent of Natura 2000 in non-EU countries. According to the content of the Convention, special attention is paid to migratory species and their areas of migration, overwintering, resting, feeding, breeding and moulting grounds.  

Numerous IBA sites are found in all four participating countries as they are partners of BirdLife International. Out of the four project countries, it is Poland only which has SPAs and these are Natura 2000 sites, while ASCIs exist in Norway and Belarus. In Iceland ASCI areas are being prepared based on IBAs, but are still waiting to be implemented. 

In order for management plans for Natura 2000, Emerald or IBA sites to be effective, the project was to develop international guidelines for them that would result in rebuilding wader populations. As the  effective conservation of waders requires restoration and preservation of wetlands, unregulated river ecosystems, peatlands re-wetting, in a broader view the projects (Networking for East Atlantic Flyway migratory birds in protected areas of Belarus, Iceland, Norway, and Poland and the project Exchange of Icelandic and Polish experience in peatland restoration for biodiversity and climate) provide tools to fight with drought and global warming.

What are the threats?

The main threat to waders in all four countries is habitat loss due to the following reasons: wetland drainage, agricultural expansion, regulation and transformation of river valleys, open areas overgrowing. Predation pressure, development of road networks, unsustainable tourism are other important factors. Also some threats are more country-specific. 

In Iceland for example, the government is implementing an afforestation programme under the banner of fight against global warming and soil erosion by wind. Not only are the open lands favoured by waders being lost but there is also a risk of spreading invasive alien plants that are used for afforestation. Furthermore, warming climate extends the growing season, it facilitates tree growth and makes more area available for the agriculture and potentially lost to the nature. Iceland is facing also rapid expansion of summer cottages that is also a threat to waders losing their areas.   

Norwegian experts pointed out that most of the key areas for the protection of waders are in private hands, no conservation/management plans are even made for the areas as it is landowner who needs to agree to comply with a potential plan restrictions. Most of the areas are also permitted for hunting. An opportunity to expand the waders’ habitat lies in protecting abandoned small farms left behind by former land owners who are moving to the cities these days. National parks or reserves in Norway do not provide sufficient protection as Norway has a right of public access to the wilderness, so-called Allemannsretten: one can pitch a tent or roam anywhere. Conservation/management plans for national parks therefore do not restrict this right. It is also known that Norwegian Emerald Network sites have no protection plans. Another further threat to waders in Norway is the destruction of their habitat by the extraction of peat from lowland peatlands. 

Belarusian report in turn, revealed that wetlands reclamation in key areas for the protection of waders often takes place by means of unused ditches and what’s worse it eases the fires spreading when the peat layer is drained. The report revealed how regulation of Prypiać River and its tributaries caused loss of waders habitat and at the same time increased occurrence of local floodings. Straightening the riverbed and cutting it off from the oxbow lakes brought about more frequent and violent floodings that can destroy birds’ eggs or newly-hatched chicks. Hunting is another major threat to waders in Belarus, the hunting season lasts there until mid-May and it is a common source of income and an attraction in areas that should provide protection for waders. Moreover, the Common Snipe is a hunted game in Belarus. On the other hand, hunting does not regulate the numbers of corvidae which grow in numbers due to the fertilisation of wetlands by biogens run-off  and which compete for food with waders and may hunt their chicks and eggs. 

How to protect?

The analysis of the conservation plans of the selected areas important for waders yielded similar conclusions for all four countries participating in the project. 

Conservation/management plans for SPAs in Poland often articulated the threats way too generally or too enigmatically for these action plans that should limit the impact of predators on wader populations. Another fault was found in rendering certain conservation measures optional and not obligatory which is due to the fact that some SPAs are located on private lands. However, such shortcomings revealed in the conservation/management plans cannot be responsible solely for the observed decline in waders’ numbers. It is the inefficiency of the practices described in the conservation plans prepared for Natura 2000 and similar sites that is to be blamed. Natura 2000 network designed to protect waders is not effective as the presented practices are not applied. 

The impasse is caused by three main factors:

(1) many conservation/management plans for Natura 2000 sites are not formally adopted in Poland: they exist on paper but are not implemented;

(2) there is a lack of capacity: human, financial, managerial; 

(3) many habitats being important for waders are located on agricultural and private land; favourable use of this land that support wader populations depends only on the willingness of the landowner, for instance to use agricultural subsidies considering the environment e.g. appropriate mowing.

The answer to the impasse would be to remove formal restrictions to make Natura 2000 conservation/management plans legally in force, to support conservation plans by creating additional national action plans for individual wader species (currently there is only one for Eurasian Curlew), to actually protect important habitats on private lands through a government land buy-back programme or to prepare financial mechanisms to encourage farmers to adopt waders-friendly practices.  

In Iceland assessment of the effectiveness of conservation/management plans was very difficult as the recent data on the numbers of waders is short . The Norwegian experts also pointed out that conservation/management plans are infrequently prepared even for protected areas and they lack monitoring data for selected wader species for areas other than IBAs. The cases of Iceland and Norway show that in order to protect birds we need to count them regularly. In Poland a major contribution to bird count measurements is made by the citizen science tool, the network of observers recording the results at website or phone application, and also by the Monitoring of Common Nesting Birds which is being carried out regularly by OTOP for many years already. 

In addition to the lack of monitoring, Iceland lacks conservation measures dedicated to waders specifically. It is impressive that Iceland is the second most important place in Europe as the waders’ breeding ground. As many as 15 – 20% of European waders are here in summer. It seems that because of their huge abundance the tendency of their populations shrinkage is not realised. The total area of IBAs in Iceland appears to be sufficient to ensure the steadiness of the wader population – but their numbers continue to decline. The IBAs themselves also do not provide the tools to protect the area, and the legally protected areas are in the highlands in the interior of the island. Waders are common on Icelandic coasts which are not legally protected. Icelandic partners noted that farmers and landowners they interviewed were sympathetic to the protection of waders on their land but still government subsidy mechanisms for waders-friendly land use are needed, especially with a short growing season in Iceland. However, there is still a room for good practices: mowing meadows or cereals from the middle, leaving patches of wetlands without agricultural production. Another obstacle in Iceland is the top-down execution of conservation/management plans by the chief Environmental Protection Agency which does not involve local structures. The analysed conservation plans also lacked criteria behind the recommended sustainability and threats or practices were described too generally. 

Similar vagueness in the analysed conservation plans was pointed out by the authors of the report from Belarus: the plans did not indicate the specific locations where the activities would be carried out and did not say specifically what these activities would be. Many of the reviewed plans for key areas for the protection of waders in Belarus omitted such important threats as land reclamation, unsustainable fishing, spring hunting, improper agricultural use of the area and adjacent land. Belarusian naturalists also pointed out that conservation plans should go hand-in-hand with the existing animal species protection of the Belarusian Data Red List, as out of the six waders of the project, Eurasian Curlew and Black-tailed Godwit are protected species in Belarus. 

Very important measure mentioned in all four countries reports was the need to strengthen environmental awareness among the local community and the need to activate municipalities for joint actions. Suggested practices are as follows: the participation of local communities or municipalities in bird monitoring and informing them back on the results, communication of the field conservation activities to a wider audience including environmental education centres, through the media, web portals or organised field trips. 

Local communities can make a significant contribution to maintain habitats friendly for waders through the cultivation of traditional grazing or mowing. In Belarus the tradition of haymaking is already receding throughout the Polesia region. Tradition is dying off as unprofitable economically with people moving from the countryside to the cities and the cattle herds are declining. As a result, the open areas that were once grazed or moved are getting overgrown with shrubs. Local people used to limit succession by burning it with fires usually carried out in early spring or late summer. However, such practises do not fertilise the soil at all (unlike grazing which enriches the soil) and often bring death to avifauna and their chicks. Government funding instruments would therefore be needed to support the viability of traditional mowing and to support local identity about such traditions. In Iceland the tradition of rotational grazing still thrives despite the mechanisation of agriculture: sheep graze in lowlands until mid-June and again at the beginning of autumn when they return from highlands after a break. This maintains the optimum vegetation height for breeding and foraging waders. However, still too little is known about the numbers of stock and what grazing methods work out in respective areas. What is needed is cooperation between scientists and local residents, especially the elderly. The results of such scientific research should be also presented to the local community and translated into grazing continued in an optimal way for the wader populations. Traditional grazing and mowing has already disappeared in many parts of Europe, so it is all the more urgent to preserve it as a good practice for the conservation of migratory waders, but also as a cultural heritage. 

These traditions, combined with an increase in environmental awareness among local people could also become part of the promotion of the region and in the long term generate profits for the local community through sustainable tourism. The protection of waders benefits both people and the climate as protecting the habitats of these birds (wetlands, peat bogs and river valleys) provides CO2 reduction means to prevent droughts. The most important thing is to translate all these: theory, research, knowledge of threats, and measures to protect waders, new models of agriculture that serve nature apart from food production – into good management plans and to create legal and financial mechanisms so that these measures are effectively applied.


We invite you to watch the recordings dedicated to the projects:

1. The conference in Warsaw, 27.06.2022: the participants of the project from Poland, Norway, Iceland and Belarus present the waders’ numbers, their habitats, threats and good practices for waders’ protection undertaken in each country.

2. The conference “Wetlands restoration for biodiversity and climate” Reykjavík, 16.06.2022, that discusses the methodological and practical issues that participants of the project from Iceland, Poland and Belarus face and have experience with. Wetlands restoration is good not only for endangered waders but also protect us from drought and global warming.

For Belarusian version of this page visit :

READ MORE about the project „Exchange of Icelandic and Polish Experience in Peatland Restoration for Biodiversity and Climate”


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