It’s early spring, the mornings are getting warmer (slightly) and the nights are getting lighter. The early morning frosts are slowly retreating and the daring amongst us have recently been discarding our thick winter jackets and venturing out in lighter garments. But there is another change in the air, particularly in my neck of the woods. Since winter, the upland moorlands of Northumberland that have been deserted of everything but red grouse, but now, these moorlands are now showing signs of renewed life. The cries of curlews are filling the skies, meadow pipits are fluttering through the heather, and the plumage of the golden plover is sparkling in the sunlight. But there is another bird that is iconic of these habitats. A bird that dives and swoops over the fields and moorlands, its rapid wingbeats make loud humming noises as it passes and its iconic flute like call of ‘pee-wit’ echoes around the countryside. Have you guessed who he is yet? The Lapwing.
Vanellus vanellus. The green plover. The peewit. The tew-it. Take your pick of what you wish to call him, because this enchanting species is certainly not short of names. But what he is lacking in, is numbers. As you may know, the lapwing is something of a struggling species on our shores. In fact, their struggle is so real, that they are a on the ‘Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern.’ However, where I live, that fact seems rather difficult to believe, because northern lapwings are everywhere! Now, I’m not boasting (well, maybe a bit), but often, when we see such species so often, we find it odd that they are thought to be in decline. But lapwings are and that fact is a rather worrying one.
So, when did this decline start? The 90s? Were they scared off by bad boy bands and strange pop music? The 80s? Were our lapwings horrified by the prevalence of mullets and crazy hair, preferring their own quiff like slicks? The 70s? The swinging 60s? The possibilities, really are endless, but it may surprise you to know that lapwing numbers actually began to decline in Britain in the 1800s! The causes of this decline have since been identified, with many people during that period collecting lapwing eggs for food and this practice was only stopped by something called the ‘Lapwing Act’ that came into effect in 1926, which prohibited such activities. Following this, lapwings recovered well, but come the 1940s and our lapwings were once again in trouble. What was it this time? The familiar problem of changes in farming practices. Grasslands were converted to arable lands, marginal lands were drained and intensified and chemical fertilisers and pesticides were heavily used. Despite this, lapwing populations seemed to stabilise in the 1960s, albeit at a much lower level.
Since then however, things have not improved. Pasture land has improved, grasses are shorter and lapwing eggs have fallen victim to increased trampling from livestock, whilst tillage, drainage and pesticides have reduced their food availability. Rotational farming has been lost and this has reduced the available areas of habitat mosaics, which lapwings need to successfully rear chicks. So, after all this, why are there so many where I live? Well, the declines have actually been worse in southern England and Wales, where farming intensification has been the greatest. Overall however, lapwing numbers have declined by 80% since 1960.
But this is bird who when it comes to breeding, only have to produce 0.6 chicks each year per pair to be successful. 0.6 chicks! That’s nothing! That’s not even 1 chick! Well quite, but when so many areas have been converted to improved grassland and when they have to exceed the mortality rates of adults, it’s not as easy as it sounds.
So, sufficiently depressed for our lapwings? Don’t be (not yet anyway)! For there are areas where lapwings thrive! Upland areas with rough grazing is one example and is exactly the type of habitat that surrounds my area of Northumberland. But not only this, because it is possible to reverse the decline in lapwing numbers. How? With better farming methods, which allow for a mosaic habitat of grassland and spring crops, and having areas of damp, unimproved grassland. Now that’s all very well, but easier said than done! Maybe, but there are schemes in the UK that do provide grants to those landowners who farm their land in a way which is beneficial to the lapwing. However, there is a lot about the lapwing that we don’t know. How can we improve the number of fledging chicks?
So, we know the problems and we are all to aware of the plight of the lapwing. Conservation efforts not ignoring this fantastic species and agri-environmental schemes are available. Hopefully, such schemes and conservation efforts and future research will have a beneficial effect, because a spring in upland Northumberland without a lapwing is like a winter without a robin.
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