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Lapwing Memories and Hopes

Lapwing

Malcolm Ogilvie

When I was 12 years old, our family moved from a house in a town to one deep in the countryside. Our new house was surrounded by cattle-grazed pastures with overgrown hedges, while opposite was a shallow valley with damp pastures either side of a small stream. It was in these surroundings that I gradually became aware of the wildlife around me, and in particular the birds. And, among the birds, the species which made one of the earliest and biggest impacts was the Lapwing.

In the very first spring in our new home, I became aware of these amazing black and white birds tumbling and wheeling over the fields by the stream, the air filled with their plaintive 'pee-wit' calls. And I continued to enjoy their presence for several years thereafter. But even before my parents left that house about 15 years later, the Lapwings had largely disappeared, as had most of the hedgerows. The farmer had begun to "improve" his land and its productivity. The wet fields were drained and converted to arable and any Lapwing rash enough to make a nest could be guaranteed to have it rolled out of existence as the growing wheat was cultivated.

LapwingThe decline of the Lapwing in Britain, of which I was aware of just one tiny part, has been well documented. The species has disappeared from great tracts of England and is almost extinct as a breeding species in Wales. Here in Scotland the situation is a little better, but only patchily. Close to my present home on Islay, however, the Lapwing still flourishes, though even here there are many farms which have lost them through drainage of the damper fields.
When the RSPB purchased their Loch Gruinart reserve on Islay, their main focus was on the flocks of wintering geese, but they soon realised that they had also purchased the nesting area of well over 100 pairs of Lapwings. Their farm management has been adjusted to cater for these birds, as well as the 50 pairs of Snipe and 40 pairs of Redshank which also breed on the low-lying fields.

Currently, studies are going on to work out exactly what best suits these breeding waders, how long should the grass be, how much standing water should be available, and so on. The fields are bounded by drainage ditches and sluices are now being added so that the water levels can be controlled to provide the optimum conditions. It is hoped that what is learnt here can be applied elsewhere in Britain, ideally to bring Lapwings back to areas from which they have gone, so that in future years other small boys can be turned on to birdwatching by the sight and sound of these marvellous birds, just as I was.

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Dr Ogilvie is a natural history writer and editor, formerly a research scientist with the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, and resident on the island of Islay since 1986. Until 1997, a member of the 'British Birds' editorial board and also one of the editorial team which produced 'Birds of the Western Palearctic'.