The lapwing is an iconic bird of the wide open arable lands and the moors of southern England which has suffered a catastrophic decline in recent years.
Now a landscape-scale study across 120 sites in five different counties in lowland Britain – including Dorset – by leading research charity the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) in collaboration with the RSPB is under way to try to reverse the decline.
Scientists hope it will provide crucial information that will help improve Government schemes that pay farmers to put in special wildlife measures to help lapwings.
Latest figures show that lapwing, one of our most widely recognised waders and often called the 'farmer's friend', have fallen by about 50 % over the last 30 years.
Dr Andrew Hoodless, a wader scientist with the GWCT said: "Lapwings are very adaptable birds and because they nest on wet grassland, upland moors or arable land they should be doing quite well, but they are not. We know that the problem is not over-winter survival, but that the lapwings are simply not fledging sufficient chicks each year to maintain a stable population."
In an effort to reverse lapwing declines on arable land, which are mainly attributed to the switch from spring-sown to autumn-sown crops, the government is paying farmers to leave large bare patches of soil within cultivated winter cereal or oilseed rape fields. These fallow plots are similar to skylark plots, but much larger, typically 1-2 hectares.
Although the GWCT's research in 2010 and 2011 identified that these fallow plots were indeed attractive to lapwings and had an excellent 60 per cent occupancy rate, they are still not doing the trick.
Dr Hoodless explains: "Farmers are paid to maintain these plots under agri-environment schemes and we therefore need to be sure that this is money well spent. To do this our research aims to quantify how many chicks are fledging each year and whether the fallow plots are either maintaining stable populations or increasing lapwing numbers." The new Defra/Natural England-funded research project commenced in 2012 and involves 120 sites in five English counties and forms part of a programme of research that aims to increase the effectiveness of the Environmental Stewardship scheme. The project is a collaboration with the RSPB who are studying the birds in the arable landscapes of Cambridgeshire and Norfolk with the GWCT taking the lead in the more mixed counties of Hampshire and Wiltshire, as well as Dorset.
Dr Hoodless says: "So far the research indicates that lapwings are still declining on arable land owing to low breeding success. Initial results indicate that nest survival on fallow plots is high, but the chicks fail to thrive once hatched. Next year, we will be undertaking an extensive radio-tracking study of young lapwing chicks to identify what is happening to them once they leave the nest.