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

A A A

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
peopleComedian launches stinging attack on PM
Life and Style
The collection displayed Versace’s softer side, with models wearing flowers and chiffon dresses in unusual colourings
fashionVersace haute couture review
Arts and Entertainment
'The Leaf'
artYes, it's a leaf, but a potentially very expensive one
News
Yoko Ono at the Royal Festival Hall for Double Fantasy Live
people'I wont let him destroy memory of John Lennon or The Beatles'
News
Could Greece leave the EU?
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Team Leader

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Recruitment Genius: Client Manager

£27000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A growing, successful, friendly...

Recruitment Genius: Property Negotiator - OTE £20,000+

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This family owned, independent ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'