Saving our lapwings - the quest to preserve Derbyshire’s peewits

Lapwing in flight

Lapwing in flight - Credit: Archant

Paul Hobson makes a call to arms to help restore that glorious, evocative, countryside, spring sight and sound – the flight and cry of the Peewit


Lapwing - Credit: Archant

Last summer I worked as a volunteer on the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust/National Trust’s badger vaccination programme in the Edale valley. On many of the days when I was tramping up hill or down dale I would stop to chat with the local farmers whenever our tracks crossed.

Our conversations often roamed far and wide but one chunter stuck firmly in my mind, the changing sounds of spring. Both myself and the farmer recollected just how quiet spring had become. In many ways it reminded me of a book I read in 1978 when I was studying for my degree in Environmental Science. The book was titled Silent Spring and had been written by one of the most influential environmental scientists of the last millennium, Rachel Carson. I mentioned this to the farmer and we chatted about how successful the book had been in revealing the hidden cost to wildlife of indiscriminate pesticide use. We both agreed that her message was still relevant today. Spring on many farms is just too quiet!

What the farmer and I were referring to was the huge reduction in the number of small songbirds, lapwings and cuckoos. Lapwings have declined dramatically in both Derbyshire and the UK since the Second World War. However, the fastest decline has occurred far more recently. In the dale where I had been chatting to the farmer we both remembered just how the sky above each field of rough grass was once cut by the tumbling flight of this fantastic black-and-white bird. The air would be redolent with the characteristic call of the lapwing – a sharp, distinctive ‘peee-wit’. In fact the lapwing was such a characteristic bird of both upland and lowland farms (where the sharpest decline has occurred) that it earned itself more vernacular names than any other British bird species. Peewit, tuit, tewit, green plover, lappinch, hornpipe and flopwing to name just a few.

We should all be sad for the loss of such an enigmatic emblem of our farmland, yet it is only those of a certain age who can remember it being any different.

Lapwing flock in flight, winter, Vanellus vanellus

Lapwing flock in flight, winter, Vanellus vanellus - Credit: Archant

The first stage in managing the land to allow lapwings to recolonise traditional territories is to understand the reasons for their decline. These are not hard to understand – a switch from spring sown to autumn sown crops, a huge increase in nitrate fertilisers, a loss of rough grazing grasslands, and a switch from hay to silage production. Clearly, from a farmer’s perspective, it is not easy to reverse these. They would all entail an economic penalty, and for many small Derbyshire farmers who exist on an economic knife edge this could act as the unwelcome tipping point.

Luckily there is help at hand, both from a practical as well as a financial angle. The Environmental Farming Scheme is a project that can help farmers to plan and act to increase the biodiversity of their arable land. However, this may change as the Government attempts to flesh out its new agricultural bill as we move into a post-Brexit Britain. We can only hope that all the good work that is on-going is underpinned and enhanced.

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Farming for lapwings is a project that was initiated over a decade ago by the RSPB with Derbyshire as one of its main trial counties. The advice that is provided to farmers is tailored to their specific farm and is aimed at providing two essential factors: safe nesting fields and productive (from an invertebrate point of view) feeding fields of good quality pasture.

The key things encouraged are: maintaining traditional nesting fields; creating fallow plots for nesting lapwings using agricultural/environmental funding (especially if they are next to good pasture); reducing stocking levels between March and July (this is the nesting season and cows and sheep will trample nests and chicks inadvertently); increasing wetness of fields (or even corners of fields) by blocking drains (lapwings love wet fields to feed in); using spring sown fodder crops (for nesting) next to good pasture; and, finally, reducing the use of machinery, particularly between March and July when the birds have eggs or young.

A vulnerable lapwing chick

A vulnerable lapwing chick - Credit: Archant

After the breeding season lapwings tend to leave our farms, moors and brown field sites – many pairs nest on reclaimed colliery spoil – and congregate locally. They are not great migrators as a whole. In the past, incredible numbers of over 7,000 birds used to gather but most recently the highest post-breeding flock, reported at Carsington, was of just over 1,000 (Derbyshire Bird Report, 2018). Other important winter sites include Abbey Hill Floods, Carr Vale, Ogston and Willington.

Indeed, the best time to watch lapwings is during the winter. The sight of flocks wheeling across the sky as they are scared into flight by a predator such as a fox or peregrine can leave an indelible image on your mind.

For many of us though the real essence of the lapwing is that glorious tumbling flight as the black-and-white wings glint green and purple in the spring sunlight and the air is cut by the recognisable ‘peee-wit’. Even as you catch the first cry, the air is joined by numerous other tewits as they rise from the rough, wet pasture to chase off a carrion crow or mob a fox or stoat as it crosses their cherished nesting field.

It was once like this, still is in a few select places, and it can be again across much of our county’s farming landscape – if we can manage the land and provide the funding that allows managers to act in a wildlife-friendly way.

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