In early March, lapwings return to their favoured place to breed. I can still remember them being such a common bird that their evocative courtship call and swooping flight was well known. Now, their population has declined so much that locally only a few pairs come back to just one field. During the 80's, their ancestors nested in the spring barley sown in 'Three Corner Piece,' a stony small field. But then the fence was pulled down, the field enlarged and wheat was planted so the birds moved on. They were then looked after by the Carter family at Place farm, who would search the maize fields before cultivating around them or who would move the nests to safety. When the Carters left, the lapwings left too, as the fields quickly became unsuitable for nesting. Luckily, at that time an environmental scheme came in, which paid for a ‘Lapwing plot' to be prepared for them annually. At least, they had somewhere permanent safe to breed in the middle of an arable field. Sometimes they would nest off the plot and it would take both myself and Geoff Lambert to find them and put down a marker. But even so, the numbers of pairs were still declining year on year, so I gave them a pond for water and a source of insects. I even cut down some hedgerow trees where crows would perch to predate on the chicks.
As lapwings are long lived (up to twenty years) and the old birds faithfully return each year, a lack of breeding success can go unnoticed for years, until finally, the old birds die and no more birds ever return.
This year, Nick Adams (a local ecologist with a long RSPB experience) has recommended fencing an area of grass to be grazed by a couple of sheep, which will provide the lapwing chicks with insects. Let's hope that works!
All this shows how farming and the countryside has changed even in my working lifetime, and a species which had adapted to a centuries-old agricultural system, suddenly find themselves relics in a hostile environment.
If you want to see and hear lapwings, a good place to go is Winterbourne Downs RSPB Nature Reserve near Newton Tony. The whole farm has been converted to suit the habitat requirements of stone curlews (another endangered bird species), and lapwings just happen to like it too.
by Andrew Graham
Photo: Barn owl
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