Science - February 11, 2016

‘Godwit won’t gain from cows in the meadow’

Text:
Albert Sikkema

Secretary of State Van Dam is going to give dairy farmers 750 euros if they put their cows out to pasture before the first grass is mown in mid-April. The aim is to protect field birds such as the black-tailed godwit. David Kleijn, professor of Plant Ecology and Nature Management, is sceptical. ‘I don’t see the connection between putting cows out to grass and black-tailed godwits.’

If they put the cows out to grass farmers start haying later, and more godwits survive.

‘That’s of little consequence. Grutto chicks need long grass to scratch about in for their food without being taken by birds of prey. With the intensification of agriculture, livestock farmers have started mowing earlier and earlier and there is less and less long grass when the chicks hatch out of the eggs. Then you can let the cows graze but you’ll still get short grass. Farmers should not only mow later but also raise the groundwater levels in the meadows.’

Why?

‘With higher groundwater levels the grass will grow later and more slowly so that farmers can’t mow it before the chicks hatch. What is more, the high water level means the grass is less dense so the chicks can scratch around in it better.’

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Can the black-tailed godwit still be saved? There are ecologists who say it doesn’t adapt well.

‘Nonsense, the godwit is a very easy bird in fact. You find it in eastern Europe, for instance, in all types of landscapes, as long as they are open and wet. In Russia the godwit has moved 800 kilometres to the north. That suggests the godwit can adapt to changing conditions. But the godwit has nothing to gain from cows in the meadow, nice as it is to see them out there. The problem is intensive agriculture which leaves no space for the godwit and other field birds such as the lapwing and the oystercatcher, which are faring badly too.


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