Lapwing, a bird that cannot live in modern countryside, takes up residence in London

  • @mjpmccarthy

One of the countryside's most plaintive and evocative sounds, the call of the lapwing, which has disappeared from more than half the land, can now be heard in central London.

Across the Thames from Craven Cottage, home of Fulham FC, at least five pairs of the rapidly disappearing wading birds are breeding in the £16m state-of-the-art nature reserve about to be opened in Barnes by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT).

It is uncanny to stand less than two miles from Notting Hill and all that is most modish in the capital, and in view of the River Café, one of London's most fashionable restaurants, and hear the mournful cry which, to anyone familiar with it, immediately conjures up the empty expanses of marshes and moorlands.

The piercing pee-wit call gives the bird one of its other common names, the peewit. It is also known as the green plover: it is the plover of plovers' eggs, those society titbits of a bygone age.

Until 20 years ago the lapwing was one of the most widespread as well as one of the most colourful of British birds, with its iridescent green back, black and white underparts and long wispy crest. It is a spectacular flyer, tumbling up and down in great vertical swoops to drive off predators such as crows or gulls, or merely in display.

But the past two decades have seen a catastrophic crash in numbers: according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds its British population declined by 52 per cent between 1970 and 1998.

In Wales the decline was 73 per cent between 1987 and 1998, and Devon, where once thousands of lapwings bred, "a pair on every farm", now has only 100 pairs across the whole county.

As well as mountains and marshes, farmland is a major habitat, and, as with the skylark, changes in farming practice are believed to be a main cause of their decline. They have been hit in particular by the dwindling of mixed farming - arable and livestock combined.

Lapwings flourish where both are found together, as the birds like to nest on bare fields of young crops, where they can see predators coming, then take their chicks almost as soon as they are born into pastures, where insect food is more plentiful. But British agriculture is increasingly polarising, with crops grown in the east and livestock raised in the West. This and other changes, such as intensified field drainage, mean that in many places lapwings have disappeared altogether.

It would be hard to believe they should so prosper in London itself, were it not that the Wetland Centre, Barnes, has been designed to create a wilderness in the heart of a capital city. The dream of the late Sir Peter Scott, WWT's founder, it is 105 acres of lakes, pools, mudflats, marshes and reedbeds carved out of former concrete reservoirs.

It has had teething problems, not least a dispute over season- ticket prices, reported in The Independent (they have been brought down), but when Sir David Attenborough opens it in three weeks it really will add to a part of London which is usually characterised by the frenzied pursuit of fashion something much more memorable: the call of the wild.

The centre was built on what was originally a 125-acre site containing four concrete reservoirs made redundant by the Thames Ring Main.

Thames Water sold one-fifth of the site for housing to a developer, which provided the money to break up the reservoirs and create the wetland habitats.

Special facilities include 30 lakes and ponds purpose-built for wildlife, a visitor centre and two main hides, one of them three storeys high and fitted with a lift for disabled access. The centre opens on 26 May.

It has already attracted a remarkable array of waterbirds. Five pairs of little ringed plovers, a national rarity, are breeding there this year, with several pairs of great crested grebes, and several pairs each of reed warblers, sedge warblers and reed buntings, among many other more common species.

But the lapwings are the stars. Last week they were bouncing acrobatically up into the sky every time a carrion crow or a herring gull came near. Eventually the reason became apparent: two chicks the size of eggcups could just be seen popping in and out of the foliage on one of the islands, watched over by their parents. (Five nests have been located and there may be a sixth).

With one enemy, however, the lapwings would not tangle: in mid-afternoon two peregrine falcons appeared over the reserve, dark and ominous as bombers, and, as one the lapwings rose and flew up several hundred feet, while the peregrines hunted other prey beneath them.

The lapwings are endlessly watchable, one of the most remarkable sights London has to offer.