9 August 2002

Birdlife boost for UKfarms

Politicians, consumers and environmentalists all want

farmers to do more for the wildlife on their farms.

Andrew Blake takes a closer look at Operation Lapwing,

the RSPBs latest initiative to boost birdlife on British farms

RELATIVELY minor tweaks in arable management could help reverse the dramatic decline in the number of lapwings nesting on UK farms, according to the RSPB.

But predators like foxes also need controlling if the full benefits are to be seen, according to a Norfolk farmer.

Lapwings have been a feature of the UK countryside for hundreds of years. But the past decade has seen breeding numbers halved, according the RSPB, which believes winter cereal cropping is largely to blame.

To try to help farmers counter this decline the society has launched a five-point plan for lowland arable farms, with similar schemes for livestock and upland units (see panel).

One of a growing band of farmers getting involved with the scheme is Chris Knights, who farms about 2000ha (5000 acres) of breckland near Swaffham, Norfolk.

He admits that his cropping system, involving large areas of spring-sown parsnips and carrots, gives lapwings a good chance. "We have a fair bit going for us already."

Nevertheless, farm staff are encouraged to watch for the black and white birds nesting. "We do lift the drills out to go round the nests and it makes a tremendous difference."

He is even prepared to modify his drilling programme to accommodate the birds. Parsnip drilling continues from January to June. When 14 pairs were found in one field, it was left until the chicks had hatched.

Such tactics, together with set-aside both fallowed and in bird cover strips, has clearly helped increase his yield of lapwings on one 1200ha (3000 acre) unit. "In 1991 there were five breeding pairs. This year there were well over 60."

But that success would not have been achieved unless foxes had been kept under control, he says. "Nearly all conservationists ignore predators."

The number one reason for the decline of lapwings on many farms has been the swing to winter cropping, says Mr Knights. But the failure of gamekeepers to control foxes comes a close second.

"There were 17,000 keepers in the country 15 years ago. Now there are only 3500. You also cant overlook the fact that lapwings and stone curlews do have certain fields that they prefer, though there seems to be no rhyme or reason behind it."

Manager Bruce Gutheries experience at Lulworth Castle Farms in Dorset appears to bear that out. Lapwings have nested successfully in a block of five fields of continuous maize for seven years. "They seem to like it." Indeed the RSPB has helped mark the nests so they can be avoided with the drill, he says.

But two 1ha blocks of set-aside ploughed and left bare under a DEFRA derogation have so far failed to attract the birds. "There is no evidence of them nesting there yet."

Like Mr Knights, he believes predators are partly to blame for their plight. "We have seen a dramatic increase in the number of buzzards around here." &#42

RSPBS VIEW OF PREDATORS

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Darren Moorcroft of the RSPB says birds of prey have a relatively minor impact on lapwing numbers, but acknowledges that foxes and crows are a problem. "But no amount of predator control will reverse the decline if positive land management isnt there in the first place. The two things must go hand in hand." The five-point plan helps all farmers to do something beneficial, he says.

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[box]

LAPWINGS

* Numbers halved in 10 years.

* Winter cropping main culprit.

* RSPB five-point recovery plans.

* Predator control backing needed.

[panel]

OPERATION LAPWING (LOWLAND ARABLE)

* Identify at least one field each year that can be managed to help lapwings, and grow a spring cereal or root crop in it.

* Choose a large unenclosed field away from mature hedges and woodland.

* Pick a field that contains or is close to chick feeding sites – wet/boggy area, pasture or set-aside.

* Try to carry out all machinery operations by Mar 31, or mark nests so as to avoid them. Alternatively complete all work in 10 days to permit successful re-nesting.

* Use set-aside derogation to create 1-2ha of fallow nesting plot in field centre by ploughing or discing in late February.

OPERATION LAPWING (LOWLANDARABLE)

&#8226 Identify at least one field each year that can be managed to help lapwings, and grow a spring cereal or root crop in it.

&#8226 Choose a large unenclosed field away from mature hedges and woodland.

&#8226 Pick a field that contains or is close to chick feeding sites – wet/boggy area, pasture or set-aside.

&#8226 Try to carry out all machinery operations by Mar 31, or mark nests so as to avoid them. Alternatively complete all work in 10 days to permit successful re-nesting.

&#8226 Use set-aside derogation to create 1-2ha of fallow nesting plot in field centre by ploughing or discing in late February.

RSPB view

Darren Moorcroft of the RSPB says birds of prey have a relatively minor impact on lapwing numbers, but acknowledges that foxes and crows are a problem. "But no amount of predator control will reverse the decline if positive land management isnt there in the first place. The two things must go hand in hand." The five-point plan helps all farmers to do something beneficial, he says.

LAPWINGS

&#8226 Numbers halved in 10 years.

&#8226 Winter cropping main culprit.

&#8226 RSPB five-point recovery plans.

&#8226 Predator control backing needed.