Questionable Improvements

Standing in the way of progress.
Standing in the way of progress.

Amidst all the excitement of spring, it was a rather gloomy experience to see the lapwings’ return to fields which were drained during last summer. Lapwings always provided a ready distraction on this ground, and for eighteen months I lived within earshot of their tumbling displays down on the low ground near the Chayne. Their activities were confined to a few boggy holes running parallel to a system of ditches, and while I looked forward to seeing the birds calling in the spring, I also enjoyed shooting the teal which guddled in the mud during the short January days.

In common with so many other parts of Galloway, this sequence of little dubs was drained last year, just at the height of the breeding season. Diggers came at the end of May and buried great lengths of black pipe in the wet soil, and the two or three pairs of lapwings stood by disconsolately as the work was carried out. Perhaps it is no surprise that there were no chicks last year, and now just one adult bird has returned to the field this spring. There are a few muddy little gaps where a single lapwing might eke out a living, but otherwise the breeding habitat has been wiped off the map – and for the sake of less than 3/4 of an acre of “improved” grassland. The job hasn’t even been done properly and will need further work, and it is difficult to see the purpose of it.

The past ten years have seen all kinds of subsidised “improvement” work in Galloway, from drainage to the mass removal of scrub gorse. There are even some farmers who have become fixated on digging out the knowes (the local term for the extremely abundant little rocky outcrops which litter open fields) and ironing out the wrinkles so that the silage cutters can take a deeper bite. I’m fond of eating food and I can’t complain about the streamlining of agricultural productivity, but the cost:benefit ratio of some of the work has been ludicrously out of kilter. Diggers work for weeks to gnaw away a few lumps of projecting whinstone, and when they leave, they have often failed to increase the farm’s workable acreage by more than an acre or two. The system by which all of this work is funded clearly makes it financially worthwhile, but there is seldom any acknowledgement of the cost it imposes on wildlife.

The farm where I was brought up is not particularly remarkable for its wildlife, but I spent hours watching shelduck, lapwings and yellowhammers on the small 125 acre patch by the Solway. A new landowner next door has been at pains to drain and clear the bogs, and the result has been that there are no more lapwings or shelduck on his land or my parents’. Yellowhammers are now so rare that my father recently sent me an email to tell me he’d seen one. Shooting folk have an unfortunate reputation for blaming predators for all of the countryside’s woes, but while I have no doubt that an explosion of badger numbers has spelled disaster for many breeding bird species, nothing can stand a chance when its habitat is being systematically destroyed.


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