Farmers recruited to help return our land to the lapwing

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The Independent Online

Britain's most ambitious wild bird recovery programme is being launched to bring back the lapwing, the handsome plover that once bred on every farm, but is now declining everywhere.

In a five-year project, more than 250 trial sites will be used to test measures to help the bird that has been hit harder than any other by the changes in UK farming practice over 40 years. The total population has shrunk by nearly half, and in many places the bird has vanished.

The scheme, to be run by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) involves co-operation with farmers, as lapwings are essentially farmland birds and only a fraction of the population breeds on nature reserves.

It will identify measures such as creating wet fields or changing grazing regimes, which may become part of the Government's agri-environment schemes - so the farmers get paid for carrying them out.

The initiative will please bird lovers. Also known as green plovers and peewits, lapwings are striking birds with black and white underparts, a glossy green back and a wispy crest, and for centuries they were one of the commonest, best-loved and most stirring sights of the countryside. In spring, their tumbling aerial courtship display is unforgettable, and in summer they show remarkable defensive behaviour, feigning injury to draw intruders away from the nest. They were also traditional providers of a countryside delicacy - plover's eggs. (Taking the eggs is now illegal). But when intensive farming came to Britain, lapwings were hit from several different directions at once. The birds like to nest in mixed farmland, where arable and pasture land are close together: they would nest in the crops then take their chicks to the grassland to feed. But with intensification, mixed farming is disappearing. The switch to autumn-sown crops meant they could not nest in the spring fields where the crops were already high; the change from making hay to making silage meant the earlier grass-cutting wiped out their nests; the increased use of fertiliser meant fewer of the larger insects on which the chicks feed.

The result was a population crash of 46 per cent between 1970 and 2004, and 21 per cent from 1994 to 2005 alone. The greatest decline has been in Wales, where numbers dropped by 77 per cent between 1988 and 1999. There are now about 156,000 breeding lapwing pairs left in the UK.

The RSPB's recovery programme is remarkably bold in its scale: it will deal with farms across the Peak District in Derbyshire, Lancashire's Forest of Bowland, the North Pennines, south-eastern Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In each of the areas, RSPB researchers have selected between 40 and 60 trial sites for study. 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 the farmer, Simon Stott, won the RSPB's Lapwing Champion competition in 2005. Mr Stott has been helping lapwings for several years and had 16 pairs nesting on 100 acres of his 500-acre farm this year, compared with five in 2003.

"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," he said.

"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."

In the past the lapwing was so familiar that it has more vernacular names than any other bird, ranging from tieves' nacket in Shetland to pie-wipe in Norfolk. Its haunting "peewit" cry has given rise to a number of names other than peewit, including peasiewheep (east Scotland) and chewit (Lancashire). It is also known as tuefit (Co Durham), toppyup (Borders), lappinch (Cheshire) flopwing (from its flight) and hornpie (from its crest).

Places named after lapwings include Tewitfield near Lancaster, Tivetshall St Mary near Diss in Norfolk and Pyewipe near Grimsby. Pubs named after the bird include the Peewit in Bedfordshire and Pyewipe in Lincolnshire.

Bird of Chaucer and Shakespeare

* Also known as the green plover, flopwing and hornpie.

* Lapwings average 29cm in length, with a much longer wingspan. They eat earthworms, leatherjackets, spiders and beetles.

* Lapwings produce one brood of up to four chicks and nest on open land with short vegetation. They can lay up to five clutches in a season.

* Lapwing eggs were once widely sought for consumption but the 1926 Lapwing Act restricted egg gathering.

* "Much esteemed" lapwing eggs are mentioned in the 1861 book, Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management.

* The Ministry of Food turned lapwing eggs into powder for Second World War egg rations.

* The parent birds flap their wings on the ground to feign injury to distract predators.

* The Greek name for the bird was polyplagktos, which means luring on deceitfully. The collective term is a deceit.

* Chaucer describes the lapwing as "ful of trecherye" in Parlement Of Foules while Shakespeare mentions the bird in Hamlet, Measure For Measure, and The Comedy Of Errors.