Jamie Curtis Hayward finds that attempts to save one of our most striking birds are heroic – but very sad Every year the RSPB posts a new cohort of fresh faced field researchers to the Norfolk and Suffolk coasts to count lapwings – and this year I was among them. With binoculars and telescopes we scanned coastal pastures for their crested heads, peering through tussocks as they guarded the nests, or scrapes, that they dig into the turf. Once pinpointed, the nests are mapped, staked, and ibuttoned (ibuttons record nest temperature, giving scientists insight into how often the Lapwing come on and off their eggs). Each nest should hold four mottled eggs, which are weighed and measured to predict their hatching date. This year as every year, some eggs were pecked apart by crows but others hatched to provide a new generation of fluffy chicks that are masters of disguise – indistinguishable when stationary from the lumps of cow and sheep dung amongst which they spend their formative weeks. A field scientist must watch her feet: sometimes you won’t see a chick until you have stepped on it. For a month after hatching we bore witness to the vagaries of nature red in tooth and claw. Many chicks are carried off in the beaks of herring gulls whilst others succumb to the arctic winds that scour the east of England. But within four weeks the survivors have outstretched their clumsy new wings and are making short, unsteady flights across meadows and ditches. The adults are among our most remarkable birds. For the most part they move through the air lethargically, flapping their oversized black and white wings whose tips are splayed like an outstretched hand. But come the mating season they tumble and spin through the air with strange and discordant hoots, somewhere between a jammed radio and a kazoo. Hence another of their names: the peewit. Their plumage matches their rakish manner — the heads crowned in a quiff and the outer wings shining like green velvet. They are the dandies of the avian world. But the lapwing is in serious decline. The RSPB’s scientists will tell you that it is too early to draw conclusions, but we know that fewer lapwings fledge each year. Numbers have crashed by eighty percent since the 1960s. Today the species has an ageing population and there is little sign that numbers are recovering. In my particular corner of Suffolk, of the 50 nests we documented this summer, just 18 birds fledged successfully. Their decline has been wrought by a catalogue of misfortunes. Numbers first started to fall as a result of large scale egg collecting at the beginning of the twentieth century, a practise which was banned in Britain in 1926 thanks to the Lapwing Act but continues today in the Netherlands. Unfortunately this legislation was not enough to secure a safe future for the birds. Since then intensifying farming practices have squeezed food sources and destroyed nesting sites. Lapwings nest in a wide variety of habitats, both arable land and pasture, and should thrive on farmland. I have even seen one plucky individual hunkering down on a shingle beach. They’re not fussy eaters either; worms and insects make up most of their diet. But drastic upheavals in agriculture have forced the birds from farms. The ideal lapwing habitat is a mixed mosaic of spring tillage to nest in and grassland on which to fatten chicks with insects. Such mixed farming has become increasingly rare as the supermarket-industrialised farm nexus has made inroads into the countryside, displacing heterogeneous agricultural systems in the name of economies of scale. The vogue for autumn sown crops has hit lapwing particularly hard. Despite their willingness to nest on different substrates, the species is fussy when it comes to vegetation height. A nesting bird needs to be able to scan a wide area for predators. By the time lapwing start rooting around for nest sites in April, autumn sown wheat has grown tall enough to hide hungry foxes. Even if those arable sites are successful, the use of unscrupulous pesticides like Neonicotinoids, deprive young birds of insects. Lapwings that breed on pasture have had more success but even these birds are not spared from hardship. Large swathes of wet pastureland has been drained, enabling higher stocking rates of cows and sheep but reducing numbers of water-borne insects and increasing the number of egg-trampling hooves, delivering a double blow to nesting lapwing. Britain’s remaining lapwing are scattered across sympathetically managed pastureland and nature reserves. But even in these places you are unlikely to see the large flocks whose formation once marked the end of spring. Nor are the pockets of survivors spared from misfortune. Predators: foxes, badges, stoats, gulls and raptors, are eating almost all of our new lapwing broods. This phenomenon has prompted the erection of predator fences in nature reserves along the coast of East England. These wire and moat ringed compounds keep chicks and eggs safe from plundering predatory mammals. They are a short term solution to plummeting wading bird numbers. My trips to such compounds are always tinged with sadness. They offer a dystopian vision of the future: a world in which wildlife can only survive in spaces which we have fenced off from the toxic farmed environment. Curlew, green sandpiper, redshank and ruff potter behind mesh fences, unfazed by the flocks of bird watchers who scrutinise them from spacious hides and delight in the now rare sight of birds which were once commonplace in much of the British Isles. These high security nature reserves remind me of the enclosure at London Zoo. Their design is informed by cutting edge science: artificial islands are topped with gravel and sand to encourage high rates of reproduction in birds such as ringed plover. But they are also built for the human spectators. Seeing a lapwing in a purpose-built environment such as this can is never as enchanting as watching them pirouette through the skies above open country. Unlike the winged clipped birds in zoos, these waders are free to come and go as they please. But as the surrounding landscape bristles with more foxes, densely packed cattle and neonics-soaked crops it seems that the birds have few other places to go. The predator fence is a short term solution to a problem, it is also a monument to our inability to live and farm alongside wildlife. In the long run the fences will not save the lapwing. The birds’ only hope lies in changing the farming practices which precipitated the species decline. Were our large blocks of wheat prairie and overgrazed grassland broken up into mixed farms with fields of spring grown crops aside wet pastureland then perhaps we could expect to see hundred strong flocks of lapwing once more. Such changes are much harder to make than erecting a fence. They require new attitudes in the NFU, more regulated supply chains and more political will. But if these changes are made we will be rewarded by the return of curlew and ruff to our countryside and the ecstatic screech of hundreds of newly fledged peewits.
The Passing Scene