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Lapwing alert prompts rescue bid for farmer’s friend

A five-year project aimed at helping the bird known as the farmer’s friend is being launched by the RSPB.

More than 250 farm sites have been chosen to test measures designed to help the lapwing, which has declined in the UK by almost 50 per cent.

The study, in the Peak District in Derbyshire, Lancashire’s Forest of Bowland, the North Pennines, south-eastern Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, will compare upland farms where land is being managed to attract lapwings, with similar sites without lapwing-friendly management.

Scientists have been developing measures to help lapwings in Britain’s lowlands for some time but the species is more common in the uplands and researchers are now assessing how to encourage these birds as well.

Their findings will be used to improve government schemes that pay farmers for environmentally-friendly practices. At the same time, the RSPB is urging ministers to add the lapwing to its list of threatened species in England, because of the extent of its decline.

Mark Bolton, Research Biologist at the RSPB, said: “We’re aiming to show whether the UK’s agri-environment schemes will increase lapwing numbers or whether extra measures are needed to ensure the right habitat is created.

“Lapwings are primarily farmland birds and only a fraction of the UK’s lapwing population breed on nature reserves. That means that the work of farmers is crucial, as is ensuring that improvements to farmland do not affect farm income. Finding ways of enabling farmers to manage habitats better is a key part of the project.”

The lapwing has more vernacular names than any other bird, ranging from tieves’ nacket in Shetland to pie-wipe in Norfolk. It also has places and pubs named after it. The bird is mentioned by Chaucer and Shakespeare and even Mrs Beeton, and is called the farmer’s friend because it eats insects regarded as farm pests.

It is slightly larger but more slender and elegant than a pigeon, with distinctive black, white and bottle-green colouring and a three inch black crest.

Its tumbling courtship display is unmistakable and is seen most often over the wet meadows of farms and nature reserves. Its decline, of 46 per cent between 1970 and 2004, and 21 per cent from 1994 to 2005, has been attributed to changes in farming such as the loss of mixed agriculture, and the draining of land.

RSPB researchers have selected between 40 and 60 trial sites for study in each of their six areas. In the Forest of Bowland, 15 farms are implementing lapwing-friendly measures - such as wetting fields, creating ditches and scrapes - currently included in the government’s agri-environment schemes. Another 15 are using more specialist practices, called management-plus, and the remaining 15 are being farmed as controls, with no lapwing-specific measures.

Laund Farm in south Bowland, where lapwings are known as ‘chewits’, is one of the management-plus sites and farmer Simon Stott won the RSPB’s Lapwing Champion competition in 2005. This year he was named Waitrose Small Producer of the Year after the success of his local co-operative, Sheepsmilk UK.

Mr Stott has been helping lapwing for several years and had 16 pairs nesting on100 acres of his 500-acre farm this year, compared to five in 2003. He said: “The RSPB thought the land would be suitable for lapwings and as it wasn’t good for anything else, I thought I’d give it a go.

“The lapwings eat the flukeworm, which would otherwise cause disease in my sheep. Other farmers have rough land, which is ideal for lapwing. They want to do something with it but don’t realise they can be paid for helping wildlife. If they do what I’ve done they should see their land improved and lapwing coming back at the same time.

“I now have a brigade of lapwings, and oystercatchers and snipe too. The lapwings are the first sign of spring for me and if land can be made fit for wildlife I think it’s worth doing.”

Gavin Thomas, the RSPB’s Wader Project Officer in Bowland said: “Simon has shown that you can carry out conservation work, farm economically and win conventional farming awards at the same time.

“Because of farmers like Simon, we have a reasonable lapwing population in Bowland. But they are declining so we need to safeguard the birds we have and increase their numbers in the hope that they will spread. The recovery project should reveal just how we can do that.”

Cath Harris | alfa
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