Lapwing Lessons

As several species face severe local declines, Andrew Gilruth asks: is it time for conservation organisations to adopt game management principles before it’s too late?

We have learnt the value of game management to conservation. Successful game management relies on improving the breeding success of a game species in order to produce a shootable surplus. A similar ‘surplus’ is needed for many declining species in order to recover their populations (instead of just ‘bumping along the bottom of the graph’). This is why game management techniques have a lot to offer national conservation strategies.

A recent House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee report is quite clear. It pulls no punches and states that “a new approach will be needed to address the dramatic biodiversity loss”. The lapwing, which has seen a 67 per cent decline in breeding numbers since 1982, is a classic example of the issue. Not enough chicks are surviving. The Avon Valley is one of the nation’s eight designated lowland wet grassland sites yet this Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) has seen big improvements in lapwing habitat which may have helped to slow the decline, but not enough to halt it.

Pioneering research breakthrough

For many reasons the country’s national conservation strategy is not working well enough. Without a focus on solutions that achieve greater breeding success, local declines may become local extinctions. There is evidence that this is happening right now, and it may become more and more prevalent unless the following critical questions are answered soon:

  • Why is the breeding success of waders such as the lapwing so poor?
  • What is disturbing the nests? What is eating the birds’ eggs?
  • Can we translate game management principles so that they are adopted by conservation organisations across the UK, allowing them to benefit other wildlife?
  • Can we move national conservation policies to include breeding success, rather than just considering habitat improvement?

We know where to start

In the upland moors at Otterburn, our Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust scientists painstakingly recorded the effect of managing sites for habitat alone against sites that also included selective predator control. The results were amazing. In fully managed sites waders were three times more likely to raise a chick. On the sites that were managed for habitat only, the breeding success was so poor it could not even sustain the existing population levels. We need to find out how to translate this thinking to the low ground.

Assessing the cause of nesting failure

We have been monitoring birds in the Avon Valley since 1982, and in 2010, thanks to the tremendous support from our members and supporters, we completed the latest survey of wader birds in the valley. Despite being in receipt of a large amount of habitat management grants for a long time, the conservation status of waders in the valley is not good. Between 1982 and 2002, snipe declined by 97 per cent – they have practically disappeared as a breeding bird from the valley and even once common species like lapwing have declined by 70 per cent in only five years. The valley was designated an ESA in the late 1980s, but despite the funding this brought to reduce grazing levels, encourage hay making at the expense of silage making, maintain surface pools of water and manage water levels to keep the valley wetter longer for the waders, bird numbers have continued to fall. Alastair Leake, our Director of Policy, explains: “This is exactly the type of project to which we want to bring Government ministers and officials from Natural England. The substantial investment already committed to Environmental Stewardship and the willing participation of many farmers and landowners is apparently not enough to help the plight of waders here. Could involving the community help? We think so and we believe our approach is in tune with the Government’s desire for charitable organisations and volunteers to get involved.”

To find out what is happening, we have studied the fate of breeding lapwing in more detail for the last four years. We find nests (over 100 each year) and record what happens to them. We know from the science of lapwing ecology that, on average, a pair need to produce about one chick each (0.9 chicks to be precise) to maintain the population. In the last four years we have actually averaged 0.7 chicks, recording as high as 0.72 chicks and as low as 0.27 chicks. Not enough chicks are being produced and hence the population declines. Nests on land under management for lapwing do better than nests on non-scheme land, but even on the managed land, numbers of fledged young are still too low.

We investigated causes of nest failure and found that a small sample are flooded out, trampled by cattle or destroyed by grass cutting. But these losses account for only 16 per cent. The remaining 84 per cent of lost nests are lost to predators, mostly crows and jackdaws. We now need to confirm this concern about predators, write up the work for peer review and then, perhaps, plan a predator removal experiment and monitor how well lapwing chick productivity fares with and without crows.

Demonstrating a practical solution

We can act once we are clear about which species are the main nest and chick predators. In the uplands we discovered that reducing pressure from certain predators allowed wader birds, such as the lapwing, to successfully raise three to five times more chicks, thereby reversing the declining populations. We hope that this project will be as significant as our recent upland study at Otterburn which has fundamentally challenged all those involved in conservation to review policies that focus on breeding success rather than habitat alone. Now we have the attention of so many organisations, this work, which will involve adopting game management principles to assist the breeding success of non-game species, is very exciting.

This work is complex and has wide reaching implications for other species at risk of local extinction. We have commenced work on the interaction between habitat quality and predation rates on lapwings but now need further funds to generate information that is sufficiently robust to support a revision of national conservation strategy for declining species. With your support we can do just that. ν

If you would like to make a donation to the GWCT Wader Appeal, please ring 01425 652381 or visit www.gwct.org.uk/lapwing

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