“Look, that lapwing’s banana-ing!” was the exclamation from my colleague.
“It’s what?” I asked. “Banana-ing?”
“Yes,” he replied. “When they’re displaying to potential mates, they often throw their heads back and stick their tails up in the air. They make themselves into a banana shape.”
Everywhere I looked there were lapwings tumbling out of the air, skirmishing with each other on the ground, flashing black, white, and green.

Where was this wildlife spectacle? Not on a wild wetland nature reserve, or a heather-clad upland moor. This was in a carrot field.

The Isle of Axholme has a lot of these fields. Not all of them grow carrots, although many do produce a lot of the fresh vegetables that we’re used to seeing on the shop shelves – broccoli, cabbage, beetroot and onions. Many also grow more familiar arable crops, such as wheat and oilseed rape. The soils here are rich and fertile, but fragile. As well being one of most productive agricultural areas of the country, it’s one of the most important parts of England for wildlife associated with arable farming.

Farmland birds such as corn bunting, grey partridge, lapwing, tree sparrow and yellow wagtail are still a regular feature of daily farming life across the Isle of Axholme and the adjacent washlands along the river Idle.

Last year, my colleagues Anna and Jim ‘matched up’ six local farmers with 12 volunteer bird surveyors, in the first year of monitoring farmland birds in the area. Between them, the surveyors spent 228 hours surveying over 733 hectares across nine survey sites. Their highlights (in the table below) paint a picture of an open landscape where the big sky is still filled with skylark song, and the unobtrusive hedges are still home to proud yellowhammers and reed buntings.

Target bird species Total number of territories recorded in 2013
Corn bunting 8
Lapwing 26
Linnet 14
Grey partridge 13
Reed bunting 26
Skylark 69
Tree sparrow 3
Yellowhammer 36
Yellow wagtail 14

This year, Anna and Jim will be expanding the network of monitored sites as part of the RSPB’s attempt to understand why this area is so valuable for wildlife, and to support those farmers who want to give their wildlife a helping hand.

Ahead of this spring’s farm surveys, we’re meeting up in the Red Lion in Epworth next Wednesday 26 March, at 7 pm. If you might be interested in having a bird survey on your farm, or in helping with them, drop Anna a line on 07736 722184 or email her at anna.broszkiewicz@rspb.org.uk. Get in touch before Monday 24 March to order your pub supper!