Wolds wildlife artist Robert E Fuller gets up close to lapwings as featured in Yorkshire Post July 9th 2011. Click here to see article on Yorkshire Post site NEXT
week is the Great Yorkshire Show when we all celebrate the best that agriculture has to offer. I will be going to the show to look at what is new in conservation in modern farming practise.
More farmers are taking up the challenge of protecting the countryside for wildlife, with an increasing number involved in stewardship schemes. This spring I visited a farmer I know in Melbourne, Jeremy Kemp, who was awarded one of DEFRA's Higher Level Stewardship Schemes four years ago. He has put aside two five acre strips for breeding lapwings and had invited me to come and see three nesting pairs on one of these dedicated areas.
Lapwings are beautiful birds. Their striking black and white plumes, delicate crest and iridescent sheen of green, blue and purple make them an attractive subject to paint. And, when courting, they put on a tumbling flight performance which is fun to watch.
But they have been in decline since the 1950s. One of the problems is that they nest in large, open areas where the vegetation is short. I watched plenty during a trip to the Dales earlier this year, but it is getting increasingly rare to see them nesting in arable areas like East Yorkshire.
The trend for autumn sown crops means that they are usually too high by the time lapwings are looking to nest and instead they tend to choose ploughed fields where they run the risk of losing their eggs under the rollers. My father, who in 1995 won one of conservationist's most sought-after prizes, the silver lapwing award, for the work he did to promote wildlife at his farm in Givendale, used to mark out lapwing nests with flags to ensure the drivers didn't mow them down.
Jeremy had 'disked' his lapwing strip to create the right, ploughed, effect to encourage the birds. But finding the nests in the freshly-turned earth proved to be a difficult task. As we drove up to the edge of the field, six lapwings immediately took flight.
We stopped and watched. Within 10 minutes the birds came back and settled down to brood. Not wanting to bring the car any closer, we fixed our eyes on each nest and then approached cautiously on foot. The lapwings flew off again but when we got to the spot where we thought the nests were likely to be, we put a short cane in the ground to mark it and then searched around, treading carefully of course.
Just as I was beginning to give up all hope I spotted a nest. Lapwing eggs are superbly camouflaged in a simple scrape in the earth lined with dry grasses. They are a sensitive bird and to watch them on their nests you need to be in a hide and to very gradually inch the hide closer and closer a bit each day.
Fearful of scaring them, I didn't return with my hide until a few days later. Rather than build a hide at the site, which is something I would do for most nesting wild birds, I brought a readymade one of plywood which I could easily rock out of the back of a trailer at the edge of the field.
I carried it into the field and set it down 30 metres away from the nest. Then I returned to the edge of the field to make sure the female was okay about this new presence. Thankfully she flew back to the nest and promptly settled down on her eggs without any apparent concern. During the course of the following week I moved the hide a few metres closer each day and every time waited to see if she returned to the nest.
It was during this week that I also found the other two nests. I marked them with hazel twigs and kept an eye on them from my hide. By the second week my hide was only nine metres away from the nest and I got some great shots of the lapwing brooding. She was very protective and one evening I watched her see off a family of starlings that were foraging a little too close to the nest, rushing at them furiously with her wings splayed.
But what I was really after was some photographs of her with small chicks. Timing is always difficult with lapwings since soon after they hatch they go off to forage for insects by themselves. They don't then return to the nest as the adult will brood them anywhere in the field. I realised there was a chance of this happening when one evening I looked in on one of the two nests marked with hazel twigs and discovered four chicks had recently hatched.
Two were still wet. So I decided to hedge my bets and put up second hide on the nest that was still to hatch, again moving it closer to the nest a bit at a time. By now I was checking on the eggs at both hides daily and was just beginning to wonder if they would ever hatch when one evening I put an egg from the first nest I had located to my ear and heard a faint cheeping and tapping.
I arrived early the next day fully expecting to see the chicks, but there was just a small chip in each of the eggs. To my dismay the next day there was a downpour and I watched frustrated as the rain lashed against my studio window. The sun didn't emerge until evening but as soon as it was out I headed down to the hide. The chicks had hatched and I was lucky enough to get a few photographs of them as they foraged with their attentive mother.
It wasn't what I had hoped for and so I headed off to inspect the other nest. The eggs here were now chipping. When I returned the following morning three chicks had hatched overnight. They were still damp. But thankfully one egg was still to hatch. At last, this was the moment I had been waiting for.
As I settled into the hide the female lapwing arrived and began to shuffle about trying to make herself comfortable, all the while trying not to tread on her chicks. It was amusing to see how she was unable to settle until everything was just right. I watched as she began tidying up. She picked up an empty eggshell, flew off and dropped it about 30 metres away before she finally settled down.
As the morning wore on she would stand up every so often to check the progress of her chicks and by late morning the three chicks had dried out and were taking their first steps on oversized, wobbly legs. Two were quite adventurous and by lunchtime had begun foraging missions of their own, pecking at insects and scratching about. They then got tired and fell asleep in the sun but she woke them with a contact call and encouraged them back under her.
After five hours in the hide I was pleased with the photographs I had and so left the new family to their adventures. During the course of three weeks I had made 12 trips and clocked up 500 miles in my car to study these lapwings.
I am always very careful to cause as little disturbance as possible to nesting wild birds but over the years I have noticed that my presence at a nest has one positive consequence - it unnerves predators such as crows. And it is such a positive thing that DEFRA, under the Higher Level Stewardship Scheme, is helping farmers to protect these beautiful birds. Hopefully one day they will be as plentiful here as they are on the Dales.