The effects of flooding lowland wet grassland on soil macroinvertebrate prey of breeding wading birds.

Published online
22 Aug 2001
Content type
Journal article
Journal title
Journal of Applied Ecology

Ausden, M. & Sutherland, W. J. & James, R.

Publication language


Lowland wet grassland in western Europe is often managed for breeding wading birds, especially lapwing Vanellus vanellus, redshank Tringa totanus, snipe Gallinago gallinago and black-tailed godwit Limosa limosa. Recommended conservation management often entails introducing winter flooding, and in UK there is government funding to encourage this through the Environmentally Sensitive Area scheme. Soil macroinvertebrates are important prey for breeding wading birds on lowland wet grassland. This study quantified the response of soil macroinvertebrates to flooding, their ability to survive in flooded grassland, and changes in the abundance and physical availability of soil macroinvertebrates for feeding wading birds as flood water subsides. Unflooded grasslands contained high biomasses of soil macroinvertebrates, comprising mainly Tipulidae larvae and earthworm species that are widespread in pastures. Grasslands with a long history of winter flooding contained much lower biomasses of soil macroinvertebrates, comprising mainly a limited range of semi-aquatic earthworm species. Introducing winter flooding to previously unflooded grassland greatly reduced soil macroinvertebrate biomass. This was mainly due to the majority of earthworms vacating the soil soon after the onset of flooding. However, when earthworms were artificially confined in flooded soils, most species were capable of surviving periods of at least 120 days continual submergence. Winter flooding also expelled large numbers of overwintering arthropods from the soil. Soil macroinvertebrates were slow to recolonize winter-flooded grassland when it was re-immersed in spring. Consequently, prey biomass for breeding wading birds remained low in areas that had been flooded during the preceding winter. However, winter flooding probably benefited breeding snipe by helping keep the soil soft enough for them to probe for prey. It also probably benefited breeding lapwings and redshank by helping keep the sward short and open enough for them to feed in during the latter part of their breeding season. Pools of winter flood water that remained in spring and early summer also provided a source of aquatic invertebrate prey for breeding wading birds. We suggest that the best feeding conditions for breeding snipe will be provided by keeping the upper soil soft enough for them to probe in but without reducing soil macroinvertebrate biomass by flooding it beforehand. Optimal conditions for breeding lapwings and redshank will probably be provided by creating a mosaic of unflooded grassland, winter-flooded grassland and shallow pools.

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