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.