Summary Although the protection of meadow birds (amongst others Limosa limosa L.) is a key focus of Dutch nature conservation policy, management schemes (nature reserves and agri-environmental schemes) are not having the desired effect. This study examines the extent to which the disappointing results are related to suboptimal location of the managed sites. First, the extent to which the sites are located outside the core meadow bird area is assessed. Next, the proportion of sites affected by constraints, i.e. road traffic noise, landscape closure, excessive drainage and high predation pressure is analysed. For approximately 43% of these grounds it appears that management effects might be hampered by the aforementioned constraints. The extent to which the findings can explain the lack of ecological effectiveness is then discussed. Finally, we consider how the meadow bird area (ca. 570,000ha) might be managed more effectively through spatial optimisation and how to do so without undermining the support of those carrying out day-to-day management (especially farmers and volunteers).