Over the next month or so, there’s going to be a lot of activity out on the South Brooks and close to West Mead hide.  As the water levels drop (hopefully) we’ll be starting to prepare for the breeding wader season and doing everything we can to ensure the success of our lapwings and redshank.

The fencing we’ve trialled over the past few years has proved to be successful in increasing lapwing productivity (the number of chicks fledged per pair) so we’ll be repeating this for 2018 The first stage is to do some cutting and spraying around the fence line to prepare the ground for the posts to go in and then for the 9 strands of wire to be put out to form the fence.  This is a mammoth task for our wardens and volunteer work party and will be their primary focus over the next month or so. 

 Of course, with work being undertaken on the brooks there will inevitably be some disturbance, with work being visible from Hail’s View, Winpenny and West Mead hide.  The wardens will be keeping the team informed as to where they’ll be working so that we can suggest the best places to do your wildlife watching.  

A deceit of lapwing

We have more alternative or ‘common’ names for lapwings than any other British bird; flapjack, flopwing, horniwink, toppyup and peewit to name just a few of my favourites. Perhaps it is their impressive feathery crest, their tumbling acrobatic displays or their distinctive call that sparks our imagination. Whichever, the wealth of names is an indication of how well-established the lapwing is in our culture – it truly is an iconic bird.

Photo from volunteer Chris Prince

From a distance, lapwings appear to have black and white plumage, but a closer inspection reveals rich iridescent purples and bottle green. They are astonishingly manoeuvrable, performing tumbles and rolls in their springtime displays, all the while calling ‘peewit’.

They lay a clutch of 3 or 4 eggs between March and June, but if their first clutch fails, they will often try again, laying fewer eggs. Nesting on the ground can be tough; there’s always a danger from predators, from trampling or from spring flooding. Wading birds like the lapwings incubate their eggs for about a month - much longer than garden birds like blue tits - as their chicks have to be more developed, up on their feet and ready to hide at a moment’s notice.

Lapwings are known for their ability to deceive; mobbing any passing crows or feigning injury to distract potential predators. In the 1800s lapwing eggs were a delicacy and they were collected in the thousands. Rather than being admired as a protective parent, as their diversionary tactics made egg-collection a little trickier, the lapwing’s behaviour was unpopular.

This slur on the name of a beautiful bird lingers — the collective noun for lapwings is a 'deceit'!

Lapwings in trouble

 Lapwings have declined across the whole of the UK and appear on the Red list of Birds of Conservation Concern. In the latest data from the 2015 report the breeding population has declined by 57% over the past 25 years. There are now large areas of lowland Britain where you will no longer find breeding lapwing in spring.

Having survived extensive egg collection through the 1800s and early 1900s, changes in farming since the 1940s have dramatically changed the survival and breeding of lapwings. Marginal land has been drained, mixed pasture and arable farms have been lost, use of chemicals increased. The trend to sow arable crops in autumn rather than spring has resulted in the plants being too high for the nesting birds.

Giving lapwings a home at Pulborough Brooks

Lapwings need a mosaic of habitats – well drained areas to nest and damp places to find invertebrate food for themselves and their chicks (ideally close together). Their ideal nest sites are bare earth or amongst short vegetation.

Much of the springtime water management and our grazing regime is planned with 3 species of breeding waders in mind – lapwing, snipe and redshank. These species are dependent on surface water and high water tables from March through to June. They are also responsive to sward (vegetation) height – influenced in turn by the stocking levels of cattle.

Even when the wet grassland habitat is in tip top condition for lapwing, we struggle to achieve the nesting success needed to make the population here sustainable. As well as attracting the breeding adults we need to increase their productivity – the number of eggs hatched and chicks fledged.

In 2015 we trialled temporary predator fencing on a suitable area of the South Brooks. Previous monitoring of lapwing nests showed a high level of predation, largely by foxes so the ability to exclude some of these predators from areas favoured by nesting lapwings should help to increase their success.  The result was an increase in lapwing productivity - the number of chicks fledged per pair - but of course not all of the lapwing pairs chose to nest within the protected area.

In 2016, as well as the fenced area on the southern end of the brooks (in front of Hail’s View) we trialled a temporary fence around West Mead field – often a popular spot for nesting lapwings. Again we saw an increase in productivity – reaching the magic 0.7 (the productivity thought to ensure a sustainable population on the reserve.

One from the 'Class of 2016'! Photo from volunteer Anne Harwood.

 2017 saw us increase the size of the protected area on the South Brooks with a 2000m fenceline, plus the 800m fence around West Mead.

 Lapwing productivity

Year

2014

2015

2016

2017

Pairs

16

22

18

18

Productivity

0.38

0.59

0.78

1.0

As well as being a good year for our breeding lapwing, 2017 proved to be good for redshank too with 7 pairs being recorded.

In 2018 we’ll be keeping the 2 km fenceline on the South Brooks and the 800 m fence around West Mead.  We’re also looking into making some ‘decoy’ lapwings to try and tempt the real ones to nest in the protected areas…anyone with wood carving skills may find themselves commandeered!

In the future we’re hoping to set up a permanent fence along eastern edge of south brooks  (at the top of the flood line) and then each year put up the 2 km temporary fence to join it up and effectively enclose the whole of the South Brooks.  We’re planning to do this after the current breeding season before it gets too wet and then we’ll be ready for the 2019 season.

We’ve also done some coppicing and hedgelaying along the fenceline adjacent to West Mead hide & pool. The electric fence has certainly helped the lapwings raise more chicks, however, the eggs & chicks however are still vulnerable to predation by corvids who use the over-looking trees as vantage points to locate the nests.  By reducing the height of these we hope that this will be less of a threat.  In addition, it encourages the hedgerows to become denser which is great for warblers and other small birds who like nesting in scrub.

 Despite the difficulties, lapwings are one of the most delightful birds to watch here; the astonishing acrobatics and evocative calls in spring followed by the appearance of lovely fluffy chicks. And then of course the fantastic winter spectacle; lapwings are more numerous in autumn and winter when they gather in the wetlands. Watching the spectacle of thousands of lapwings taking to the skies to evade the talons of the peregrine falcon is incredible.

 

 

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