Dr. Jan-Uwe Schmidt
Is there still a place for Lapwings on vast, industrialised fields?
Saxony is a federal state of Germany, located in its eastern part (Fig. 1). It is far away from the coast and inherently poor in natural wetlands, hence Lapwings mainly breed on farmland, and there predominantly on arable land. Formerly a common species, it is now rare (400-800 pairs, highest red list category 1) and only patchily distributed . The Lapwing’s decline is embedded in the general demise of farmland birds in western Europe, encompassing many species, even formerly quite common birds as the Eurasian Skylark (Alauda arvensis). So, the Saxon State Parliament decided in 2008 to initiate a project for farmland bird conservation in order to find ways of implementing well-working conservation measures in agricultural practices.
For breeding, Lapwings in general prefer sparsely vegetated places. In Saxony, they are focused on three habitats: (1) freshly ploughed/sown fields with early-sown spring crops (e.g. spring barley), (2) fields, that were left as stubble or set-aside over winter, intended for late-sown spring crops (e.g. maize), (3) wet sites in winter crops.
Breeding on early-sown spring crops in most cases works quite well. In Saxony, the spring crops are sown as early as possible, depending on weather conditions, usually in March. This makes that fields suitable for breeding during April as well as for rearing the young in May. Unfortunately, those early-sown spring crops cover only about 5 % of Saxony’s arable land .
Many Lapwings instead are highly attracted to the large, in early spring still untreated fields, that are intended for later cultivation, usually with maize. These fields works like ecological traps, because they are usually ploughed in April, and many clutches get lost. A good measure is to locate and mark the nests so that farmers can avoid them during tillage. We did that with high efforts, because finding Lapwing nests can be notoriously challenging, and saved 79 clutches from 2010-2015. We marked the nests with two sticks (sold in garden centers to bind tomato plants), each about 8 m in front of and behind the nest in the direction of tillage. The percentage of marked nests where at least one chick hatched was about 60 %. Most farmers found this measure useful and some were quite happy when we showed them the nests. However, it is time-consuming and the most difficult thing is to find all these nests in a very short period of time, because there are many such fields, but only about four weeks remain from mid-April to mid-May to do that .
So, our second strategy was to create sites that attracts Lapwings. Damp sites with puddles exists in many fields with winter cereals or oilseed rape and the crops are depressed in growth or they even fail to establish (Fig. 2). Farmers often prefer to drain these sites, but they can also use them to fulfill their biodiversity commitments. Drainage is expensive, so our key concept was to argue: why not earn money with breeding Lapwings at these sites? Lapwings are often present by itself, especially at those sites, that are forming every year. But when the surrounding crops grow in April, this severely limits the visibility conditions, thus, potentially, leading to high rates of clutch loss due to predation. Therefore, we let the farmers create lapwing plots at damp sites by simply ploughing them in autumn. The ground should be mostly bare to reduce water loss by evapotranspiration of the remaining vegetation and to attract Lapwings in the next spring (Fig. 3).
We studied 61 lapwing plots and compared them with untreated sites nearby. We found Lapwings at 65 % of the treated plots, but only at 37 % of the untreated sites. 64 lapwing pairs bred at 26 lapwing plots (Fig. 4), but only 18 pairs at nine untreated sites. Hatching success was significantly higher than without treatment (24 pairs at 11 lapwing plots vs. 3 pairs at 2 control sites). Additionally, we searched for key factors, that influence the decision of Lapwings to breed at a specific site. According to our results a successful lapwing plot should be: (1) large (at least about 2 ha); (2) located at a traditional breeding site; (3) sparsely vegetated; and, (4) equipped with a shallow pool of water. Other species found to benefit much from the lapwing plots were Eurasian Skylark (Alauda arvensis) and Western Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava) present at 96.5 % and 80.7 % of the lapwing plots, while only at 87.5 % and 37.5 % of the control sites, respectively .
Finally, some words about the interaction with the farmers. Most of them were polite and relatively open-minded for some kind of Lapwing conservation. This might be partly linked to the Lapwing’s positive image or it was due to the fact, that the species prefer rather unproductive sites. In a first step we were out in the fields to identify potential breeding sites, mainly based on records of past years and sometimes supported by local birdwatchers. In a second step we talked to the farmers about these specific sites, that they already known to be “soaking-wet hollows”. We outlined what could be done there for Lapwing conservation, and although we did not have a money-suitcase with us to pay instantly, the contract was fairly simple compared to the usual AES application process. We contracted the farmers on a yearly basis, with contracts usually running from August to July. For a lapwing plot they simply had to plough the site in autumn and left the plot as set-aside until the next summer. Application of pesticides was forbidden, as well as driving on the plot. They got a fixed allowance of 750 Euro per hectare. The acceptance of the lapwing plots was high, with more than 70 % of the farmers, who had established one or several lapwing plots once, repeated the measure during one or more of the following years .
However, as the project came to an end and the lapwing plot measure became part of the AES catalogue in Saxony, only a handful of lapwing plots was created. Without site-specific, personal advice from conservationists, most farmers did not want to go through the rather complicated process of AES implementation.
- Steffens, R., W. Nachtigall, S. Rau, H. Trapp & J. Ulbricht. 2013. Brutvögel in Sachsen. https://publikationen.sachsen.de/bdb/artikel/20954.
- Statistisches Bundesamt (ed.). 2018. Fachserie 3 Reihe 3.1.2 – Land- und Forstwirtschaft, Fischerei – Bodennutzung der Betriebe (Landwirtschaftlich genutzte Flächen) 2018. Accessed 08 March 2019 at: https://www.destatis.de/DE/Themen/Branchen-Unternehmen/Landwirtschaft-Forstwirtschaft-Fischerei/Publikationen/Bodennutzung/landwirtschaftliche-nutzflaeche-2030312187004.pdf.
- Schmidt, J.-U., M. Dämmig, A. Eilers & W. Nachtigall. 2015. Das Bodenbrüterprojekt im Freistaat Sachsen 2009-2013 – Zusammenfassender Ergebnisbericht. Schriftenreihe des LfULG 4/2015, Dresden. https://publikationen.sachsen.de/bdb/artikel/23882/documents/33794.
- Schmidt, J.-U., A. Eilers, M. Schimkat, J. Krause-Heiber, A. Timm, S. Siegel, W. Nachtigall & A. Kleber. 2017. Factors influencing the success of within-field AES fallow plots as key sites for the Northern Lapwing Vanellus vanellus in an industrialised agricultural landscape of Central Europe. Journal for Nature Conservation 35: 66-76.
Dr. Jan-Uwe Schmidt
Dresden Technical University, Institute of Geography, 01069 Dresden, Germany