© Marcel Burkhardt
The Whinchat is a ground-nesting passerine of traditionally cultivated grasslands and hay-meadows. Its future depends on the existence of grasslands cultivated at low intensity, that is, with restrictions for fertilization (no liquid manure), irrigation and silage. The Whinchat is listed as vulnerable (VU) in the red list of 2010.
In Switzerland, the Whinchat disappeared from the lowlands in the second half of the last century because of the drastic intensification of grassland cultivation. The last strongholds of the Whinchats in Central Europe are found in alpine areas; but also there, grassland cultivation has become much more intensive over the last 20 years, resulting in marked declines of local Whinchat populations. We try to find measures to protect and promote existing Whinchat populations. Our objective is to reverse the population trends from negative to positive. The Whinchat needs wide late mown hay meadows (at least 2 ha/pair). Our research in the lower Engadine shows, that breedings success is not ensured with small late mown meadow strips. Therefore successful protection measures can only be promoted if enough subsidies go into agriculture and ecological conservation programs. The Whinchat is one of 50 priority species within the Swiss species recovery programme for birds carried out by the Swiss Ornithological Institute, BirdLife Switzerland and the Federal Office for the Environment.
In several regions of Switzerland we test conservation and recovery measures and implement them with local partners. Examples of projects:
a) Effect of habitat enhancement on the breeding success and population ecology of the Whinchat (Ramosch, canton Grisons)
b) Monitoring population trends in strongholds (Lower Engadine, Grisons, and Goms, Valais)
c) Implementation of a Whinchat-friendly pasture scheme (Bever, Grisons, Les Ponts-de-Martel, Neuchâtel)
d) Promotion of the declining populations on the Plateau de Diesse and in the Lower Engadine, Grisons
e) Implementation of a Whinchat-friendly meadow management (Obergoms, Valais) that accounts for future changes in agriculture policy.
f) Does conspecific playback influence the breeding-site selection of Whinchats?
The project aims at showing whether it is possible to adjust agricultural management practices in favour of a threatened species, if the causes of a species decline are known. The management practices should be applied throughout Switzerland in areas with Whinchats. Important insights have been summarized in this publication as well as in fact sheets on ground-breeding grassland birds and on agriculture in mountainous areas in relation to the Whinchat. A press release on June 11, 2009, pointed out the consequences of early mowing of meadows for Whinchat mortality.
The attempt to save the small local population at Plateau de Diesse was unsuccessful (Berger et al. 2008).
The project in St. Imier shows that effective measures to promote Whinchats can be implemented within projects aiming at increasing connectivity. Preconditions are accurate data on the occurrence of the Whinchat and large, contiguous and late-mown areas (Bassin 2013).
Our studies in the Engadine have identified the major problems for the Whinchat associated with the hay meadows management in the lower parts of alpine valleys. Hay meadows are nowadays mown 2-3 times per year (due to fertilizer and silage) instead of only once or twice as in previous decades. As a consequence, the first cut coincides with and destroys most of the first broods of Whinchats, at times even killing the incubating or brooding female on the nest. In addition, the second cut takes place too early for the Whinchats, that is, at a time when the replacement broods are still active, and again, loss of most nests is the consequence. On the other hand, in areas located at higher elevations and being mown late in the season (i.e. after 15th July), 80% of the nests are successful.
In Bever, Grisons, and Les Ponts-de-Martel, Neuchâtel, conservation measures focus on locating nests and adjusting the pasturing scheme to enhance breeding success. The population in Les Ponts-de-Martel was stable in the last years (Perret et al. 2013), while the population in Bever decreased since 1988 and reached a low of five territories in 2009 (Horch et al. 2011).
The largest populations of the Whinchat in Switzerland occur in the central Alps. In particular, the Lower Engadine and the Goms are strongholds of the species. Relatively large populations can also be found in northern and central Grisons. Strongholds for ground breeding bird species in the Grisons see here.
Since 2004, we locate nests in early mown meadows prior to the first cut in the Lower Engadine, Grisons. Nests are located by observing the breeding pairs. Once a nest is found, its approximate location is marked, indicating to the farmer the parts of the meadow to be spared from cutting. In total, we have so far marked 135 nests, of which 100 were successful, 25 failed and the fates of 10 remained unknown (Janet 2014). The most common reasons for the nest losses were destruction by mowing and predation. As a by-product of our intensive efforts, we aim at sensitising the farmers for the needs of ground-nesting birds.
We know that breeding-site selection of Whinchats is positively associated with the presence of conspecifics. Can we leverage this behaviour by creating the attraction artificially, thus encouraging Whinchats to settle in meadows with a late mowing date? In an experimental study in selected sites in the Engadine, we tested whether we could influence the territory establishment of Whinchats using song playback to simulate the presence of other Whinchats (Voegeli et al 2018). We found that the playback had neither a negative (discouragement) nor a positive (attraction) effect on the territory establishment of Whinchats. However, the results did show that proximity to relatively large populations is an important factor in site selection. For the first time, we were able to show explicitly that the settlement rate of Whinchats declines with increasing distance to core areas occupied by relatively large numbers of Whinchats. In future, conservation measures for the Whinchat must therefore focus even more strongly on preserving existing populations and improving habitat conditions in their immediate surroundings (within approx. 2 km of the nearest core area). Our findings support the conclusion that Whinchat conservation depends on promoting low-intensity meadows and pastures near core areas (Horch & Spaar 2015). But such measures require space: studies on the Whinchat have shown that more than 60% of suitable meadows need to be mown late to support a self-sustaining Whinchat population (Grüebler et al 2015).
Northern and central Grisons
Some regions in the canton Grison still host significant populations of ground breeding bird species. Well-known are the core areas in the Engadine; an overview on the most important areas for ground breeders in northern and central Grisons, however, has been lacking so far. Based on population counts on 157 km2 of potentially suited meadow areas, 78 core areas for ground breeders have now been identified. Of the total area of 82.3 km2, 51.1 km2 is core area for the Whinchat, 23.25 km2 for the skylark and 46.6 km2 for the tree pipit (note that core areas of the three species overlap). From 2010 to 2013, these core areas offered habitat for approx.. 610 pairs of Whinchat, 220 pairs of skylark and 650 pairs of tree pipit.
In contrast to the Engadine, no extensive and late-mown meadows at high elevations are available in Goms, which could serve as alternative habitats for the Whinchat if nests in the valley floor have been destroyed or predated. Nests are therefore at risk everywhere by the possible intensification of meadow use. In 2010, the economic consequences for farmers of keeping a seasonally late mowing regime were exemplified in four farms (Schmidt & Horch 2010).Based on this, measures and financial contributions for a meadow management favouring Whinchats were deduced (Flyer für Kerngebiete). In collaboration with the cantonal agencies of agriculture and of forest and landscape, respectively, two “core areas for Whinchats” could be set up at Geschinen and at Reckingen . These core areas have been secured for the next six years by contracts between farmers and the canton.
To better understand the conflict between the breeding phenology of Whinchats and the onset of mowing in Goms, a Master thesis was done in collaboration with the University College, London (Strebel et al. 2011). Conflicts were most evident in the valley floor. Here, meadows are more intensively managed and mown earlier than on the southern slopes or on avalanche cones. The findings support the choice of 15th July as the earliest mowing date, which is compatible with the management conditions for low-intensity meadows. Yet, the spatial extent of late-mown meadows required for successful conservation of the Whinchat in the Goms region is not secured. To achieve this, additional “core areas for Whinchats” need to be installed. In the long run, however, only an ecologically motivated restructuring of the agricultural subsidy payments will save the Whinchat in mountain zones where agriculture is being practiced.
Federal Office for the Environment FOEN
Swiss Association for the Protection of Birds SVS/BirdLife Switzerland
Local birdwatchers and ornithologists
Canton Valais, Agencies of Agriculture and Forest and Landscape
Organic cheese dairy Goms
Marion J. Hofer-Woodhead-Stiftung
Alfred Vogel Stiftung, Feusisberg
Volkart Foundation, Winterthur