A Lapwing Spring

Screenshot from the nest camera as she rises from the nest – showing the bare incubation patch on her belly and also the red peg marker to protect the nest from rollers.

Lapwings are almost defunct in Galloway. A small population of the birds has survived on an RSPB reserve where they are protected by a devastatingly expensive badger-proof fence, but in most other places they have become a piece of half-forgotten history.

Two pairs of lapwings still return to a wet field which lies between my house and the fields where my cattle graze. I see them every year, and they have become steadily more remarkable for their persistence in a landscape where lapwings have almost entirely vanished. It’s easy to see why the birds like that field. There’s a busted drain in the middle, and this leaks into a mess of gooey mudholes. But balance those plus points against the fact that this entire valley is managed for commercial silage production. Modern grasslands are a dangerous place for waders, and for all I admired the tenacity of these birds, I had more or less written them off as doomed.

Inspired by a Working for Waders project this spring, I decided to look a little harder at these birds. Understanding that badgers exert a disproportionately heavy impact on lapwings, I was interested to see how that dynamic would work in practice. A “nest camera project” carried out by Working for Waders allowed me to monitor their nests at close quarters with a camera paid for by a private donor, but I felt confident that failure was a foregone conclusion.

Even from the outset, studying lapwings at close quarters was an irresistible reminder that these birds are extraordinarily valuable and precious. Perhaps I’ve allowed that sense of vitality to fade away as they have disappeared from my view over the last decade. But parked up watching the birds display through my binoculars, I was staggered by powerful emotions of sheer delight and joy to be around these birds. Over several days, my curious exploration resolved into a cast-iron desire to help them.

The first nest was completed on the 4th April. Despite working with the farmer, a cock-up in communications at my end meant that the field was spread with slurry soon afterwards and the nest was lost. I had always imagined that agricultural operations were an easily avoidable hazard. I felt like nests which were lost to rolling, harrowing or slurry-spreading simply represented a degree of easily remediable carelessness. In truth, it’s damn hard to keep eggs safe from agricultural workings – particularly when that work is being carried out by contractors. You can’t tell when they’re coming and it’s hard to catch the appropriate driver at the right moment. Short of staking out the field for several days, it’s really difficult to make sure the right person has the right information. You can mark the nests and encourage the rollers to avoid them, but marking alone is not always enough to guarantee they’ll be safe.

After lots of co-operation and hard work, I managed to locate a second nest and mark it with red pegs so that it was not destroyed when the field was rolled on Saturday morning. That’s a mighty success, and the female bird is still sitting as I type this. But it really drove home the significance of agricultural damage and disturbance to wader nests. I had imagined that predators were the single biggest reason for nest failure in Galloway, but I’ve begun to see that farm machinery is often more significant. There’s a good chance that a badger will probably destroy your lapwing nest, but a roller will definitely destroy it. That’s a fine margin, but it’s significant.

Having rescued this one nest and another nearby from being rolled, I have no guarantee that it will not go on to be predated. Confronted by the same predation issues, the RSPB have the luxury of being able to fence badgers out of their lapwing breeding habitats. In many places, RSPB reserves are used as exemplars to engage local land managers and inspire them to see how conservation works in practice. In this case, you could argue that by relying on costly conservation techniques which are not available to their neighbours, the RSPB have abandoned this role. That’s a real shame, but nobody wants to speak ill of badgers in public – it’s easier to keep your head down.

It occurs to me that I’ve so been preoccupied by unresolvable badger-related problems that I’ve overlooked more immediate challenges which I can address. Perhaps I’m being too hard on myself, but I’m now just kicking myself for failing to mark nests and pay better attention to these things ten years ago. It’s encouraging that most farmers and contractors really want to do better – they’re simply under pressure from other angles – there’s a will, so surely there’s a way!

More updates on the lapwing’s nest camera will follow, of course.

Belt and braces – a sign to accompany discussions with the farmer and the contractors

Oystercatcher nests

A ton of gravel to the rescue

I’ve spent the last few weeks looking at wading birds as they go into the breeding season. My eye is naturally drawn to lapwings and curlews, but I mustn’t overlook the oystercatchers which breed here. I’m conscious that these birds have declined by almost forty percent in Scotland since the mid-1990s, but that’s misleading for those of us who live along the coast and see them every day. It’s easy to imagine that all is well, but the reality is that oystercatchers are struggling with poor breeding success and they often need a hand.

Since I took over a new hayfield in 2018, I’ve reduced the intensity of grassland management to boost biodiversity. That’s been an exciting journey, but it has also meant that productivity has declined by more than a third. It’s hard to justify that loss, but I was encouraged to find that a pair of oystercatchers decided to make their nest in the field last year. It was a nice endorsement of my work, but I was anxious about what impact the nest could have on the field’s management. It turned out that the oystercatcher had laid her eggs near the gateway, and while I didn’t want to disturb the nest by mowing too close, I was also concerned that a great deal of tractor-work would have to take place right beside it. My concerns were immaterial in the end – a badger raided the nest and ate the eggs – but it set me thinking about finding a better balance in future years.

Speaking to a fellow wader-enthusiast near Balmaclellan last year, I was interested to hear that he had dug a series of wildlife ponds around his farm. He noticed that oystercatchers were keen on his ponds, and he wondered if they would benefit from some extra encouragement. Knowing that oystercatchers originally bred on the seashore, he scattered some small patches of gravel around his ponds in a bid to simulate a vaguely coastal feel. When I saw these patches, I would guess each one covered roughly two square metres, and the gravel had been laid on some anti-weed matting to keep them clear. Excitingly, the birds seemed to love them. Not only did the oystercatchers spend a great deal of time resting on the gravel patches, but when spring came, they also showed a marked preference for nesting on them.

Not only did the oystercatchers spend a great deal of time resting on the gravel patches, but when spring came, they also showed a mark preference for nesting on them

Oystercatchers breed in all kinds of funny places; there’s a pair nesting on the roof of Tesco in Castle Douglas as I type this. That ability to innovate has saved them from what might have been more devastating declines, but I began to wonder if that experimental nature is simply a reflection of their ability to accept second-best. If oystercatchers prefer to nest on gravel banks and coastal shores, then perhaps they’re simply making-do in a meadow. Maybe it would be possible to provide them with a simulated nest-site, away from the risks and hazards associated with commercial grassland. After all, it’s common practice to build bird boxes; a bit of lateral thinking should allow us to create nest sites for birds which prefer the seashore.

Building on the recollection of those little gravel patches at Balmaclellan, I decided to see if a bigger patch would draw the oystercatchers out of the field to breed in the margins where they would be safer. Sure enough, I dumped a ton of 20mm washed gravel on the saltings last Wednesday. As a bit of fun, I even built a rough nest in the gravel; a raised heap with a little dip in the middle like a miniature volcano. Within seventy two hours, the oystercatchers arrived and one of them sat for twenty minutes on the top of my experimental mound. When I went back to look at it, she (I assume it was “she”) had improved upon my original design, making a neat little cup. The pair seem to like what they had found, and they’ve already returned to it several times.

It’s too early to tell what will come of this experiment. To get the full effect of this project, I should’ve dumped this gravel in February and allowed the birds to find it at the start of their breeding season. At least one pair of oystercatchers is already sitting on eggs nearby, and it’s a tall order to interrupt them halfway through the spring with a new attraction. Perhaps this is more of an experiment for 2022, but initial signs have been so encouraging that I start to wonder if this could be a really helpful tool to integrate wader conservation into more intensively managed farmland. Laying down heaps of gravel in suitable oystercatcher habitats is extremely cheap and takes no time at all. In practical terms, it could add major value for minor investment, and while the benefits will probably be restricted to one species, it’s a further recognition of the fact that all waders are different and there is no “silver bullet” to address their declines.

Of course more updates will follow…

Oystercatchers arrived on the scene and explored the nest heap within 72hrs.

New Oats

With dry days and the nights so cold, it’s fair to guess that my oats were sown too soon. I’ve been looking forward to revisiting cereal crops, and it’s been fine to see birds and beasts responding to my work in a new field where the grass ley was almost fifty years old. Thrushes crammed themselves into the new furrows at the end of February, and hares crept around the clods in the aftermath of harrowing. It’s yet another confirmation of the old truth that nature responds to action. Plough, burn, fell or plant – actions like these create a frizz of interest and curiosity in the landscape. It’s relatively counterintuitive too, because conservation often feels like it should be based on protection; swaddling and preservation. Perhaps I’m overly bullish, but what I’ve seen endorses a growing feeling that it can be important to act; to roll up your sleeves and make a mess.

There was one blissful moment of sheer magic when, as I worked to harrow this field and powdered the crumbs of soil into a finer haze, gulls descended. They fell from a deafeningly clear sky and coasted around me in a riot of light and shadow; seventy herring gulls, evil-eyed and crisp as napery within arm’s reach. I laughed aloud and watched them follow as if I was the pilot of some noisy boat, trailing a wake of newly rummled sea behind me. Many landed, but when I turned and came back past them, they rose in disgust and were gone. I stopped the tractor and climbed out, trying to see where they had gone. Far up high on the very edge of what I could make out, gulls were turning and heading for the shore. I was of no lasting interest.

Now lacking even the smallest dash of rain, the oats are rising from the ground, powered only by the memory of dew and soil moisture. I see swarms of linnets; great waddling doos which slap and clatter away from the hunting hawk. There are leverets and rooks and a new surge of goodness afoot.

Wading Birds

A lapwing’s nest in Galloway, photographed this morning as part of a nest monitoring project.

I’m a big fan of the Working for Waders project. It’s made a huge effort to encourage dialogue and promote partnership working for wading birds in Scotland, and I’m really glad to see gamekeepers and farmers taking a lead, particularly since both groups often feel marginalised and sidelined by big conservation projects.

The Working for Waders team works well together, but conscious that time is of the essence to protect wading birds, I sense an enduring criticism that the project is working too slowly. Some gamekeepers complain that it’s a waste of public money; a dereliction of duty in the face of impending disaster. Working for Waders is accused of fiddling while Rome burns, and much of this frustration settles around the issue of predator control.

Having been noisily vilified in the press for killing foxes and crows over several decades, many gamekeepers feel ravenously vindicated by recent studies which reveal that wading birds really do benefit from the management of crows and foxes. There’s a whiff of triumph in the air, and many rural voices are delighted to shout “I told you so”! Having contributed to a narrative in which predator control is “bad”, major conservation organisations are now reluctant to perform an unpopular u-turn. Some of them have started killing foxes and crows, but they’re doing it in secret. That’s really unhelpful, and in some instances it’s cynically disingenuous.

There’s a whiff of triumph in the air, and many rural voices are delighted to be able to shout “I told you so”!

But while predator control has been recognised as an important strand of wader conservation, it’s not the only tool in the box. Sensing that momentum lies in their court, some farmers and gamekeepers are going further, arguing for the control of protected species including buzzards and badgers. Not only do they want their revenge for all those years of being monstered, but they also want new powers and fresh authority to act.

I’ve killed thousands of foxes and crows over the last fifteen years. I have no doubt that predator control is a vital piece of the puzzle, but we’re still really unclear about the puzzle itself. Predators can decimate wader numbers, but their impact is magnified or reduced by the way that wader habitats are managed. Here in Galloway, badgers have completely destroyed our local lapwing population. I’m devastated by that loss and madly frustrated by the fact that legislation requires me to stand by and do nothing as badgers continue to expand their numbers. But while badgers are a problem for me, they’re not even a factor in other parts of Scotland.

Badgers are on the rise, often at the expense of ground-nesters like lapwings

At the same time, I speak to gamekeeping pals in Aberdeenshire and they’ve never even seen a badger. They’re focussed on calling for raven licences to protect waders, but I’ve never seen ravens do any harm to my curlews in fifteen years of watching them in Galloway. The picture is really varied, and it depends on where you look in Scotland. It seems wildly unlikely that a mass roll-out of raven or badger control is actually going to work for everyone. It might help in certain situations here and there, but it’s also worth looking at some of the practicalities involved.

Even in hypothetical terms, driving a meaningful reduction of badger or raven numbers would be a big piece of work. Gamekeepers are famously busy – how are they going to deliver it alongside everything else they already do?What about land where there are no gamekeepers? How do we start to re-engage farmers with some of the basic principles of wildlife management? Besides, on a bigger scale, it’s easy to forget the damning reality that most people in this country don’t even know what a lapwing is. By squabbling over technical details around predator control, we make the whole discussion seem like it’s niche and irrelevant to the general public. That would be a disastrous outcome – waders are a profoundly valuable strand of our national culture and heritage; they’re relevant to everybody in Scotland.

Change will come too slowly to save most wading birds in Scotland

Having established the facts about wader conservation, it’s clear that an enthusiastic group of land managers want to act. They’re sick of waiting for science to catch up with common sense, and it’s obvious that they’re cross. I’m afraid I have to meet that frustration with a simple and bitterly-won truth; change will come too slowly to save most wading birds in Scotland. Things will continue to get a lot worse before the declines even begin to slow down. That is where we are, and it’s a fact. Working for Waders is moving in the right direction, but we have a long journey ahead of us.

It’s taken a long time for this to sink in with me, but I think it’s an important point. Wader conservation is no longer about your birds or mine. We’re now talking about whether or not it’s possible to keep any waders in Scotland, full-stop. Let’s make no bones about that.

I still believe that my work to protect curlews in Galloway is valuable. There’s no giving up – I’m learning useful things which contribute to wider discussions about conservation more generally, but I know I’m fighting a losing battle here. When I make decisions about managing my cattle and running the farm, it’s no longer with any real degree of hope or optimism for my birds in their own right. I have to focus on building a case; developing stories and encouraging people to learn more about land management. That is the most constructive way for me to expend my energy. I’m doing everything I can, and I hope you are too.