Dr. Jan-Uwe Schmidt
Breeding sites provided within the most common arable crops
Winter crops, e.g. wheat, barley, rye or oilseed-rape, are the most common agricultural crops, grown on about one third up to more than 50 % of the arable land in Central Europe (e.g. 1, 2, 3). Therefore, enhancing these fields for birdlife is fundamental for reaching goals of environmentally integrated farming.
Lapwings are present at many fields with winter crops in early spring, partly on migration, partly at their search for a proper breeding site. The large fields offer good views on potential predators and, especially around wet, damp sites, are sparsely vegetated and providing proper food resources. Lapwings prefer those rather barren sites, even raw, roughly ploughed soil, without any trace of vegetation, is acceptable for scratching a small hole and laying four perfectly camouflaged eggs in. This strategy of hiding the clutch in a vast area is well-working, as long as the breeding adults are able to detect potential predators (e.g. foxes, crows) as early as possible. They then leave the nest, usually attacking the invader, hoping that the clutch is hidden enough, not to be found. The tactic fails when the view is limited, e.g. by tall surrounding cereal or oilseed-rape plants.
So, our vast fields with winter crops sometimes works as an ecological trap in early spring, mislead Lapwings to start breeding – but some weeks later, when the sward is growing high, many clutches are lost by predation due to limited visibility conditions. Lapwing plots solve this problem by providing a large area of bare ground. Additionally, this rather extended stretch of sparsely vegetated ground is far more attractive than many of the smaller sites, that emerge by itself due to wet soil conditions. Thus, lapwing plots provide a potentially desirable site for Lapwings, where they can build their nests, breed and raise their young.
How to Prepare?
Preparing a well-working lapwing plot is quite easy, but some pitfalls have to be avoided. The most important issue is the size of the plot. According to results from Germany, it has to be large, at least 2 ha in size in winter cereals (4). In some regions this minimum size means that whole fields should be prepared.
The second issue is the location of the plot. Where Lapwings still occur, of course the best site is where they typically build their nests. Data from the past can be used to identify traditional breeding sites. At new sites, best places are where Lapwings regularly roost on migration. Typically, these sites are in open country, in some distance to tall vertical structures (e.g. trees, hedgerows, power lines) (Fig. 1).
Additionally, the presence of puddles increases the probability of Lapwing’s settling (4). Wet ground makes it easier for the birds to access their food (invertebrate soil organisms) and inhibits vegetation growth (Fig. 2). Damp sites are well-visible at aerial images that are freely available and can be used to define the exact, proper site (5). It has been shown that especially the breeding success, the successful fledging of the offspring, depends on the presence of permanent water-logged areas at or close to the lapwing plot (6). So, if there are no puddles present, a shallow pool can be created artificially (7, 8).
Many ways exist to prepare a lapwing plot. Best practice is to plough it in autumn to remove the vegetation (4, 6). It could be also ploughed early in the spring, just before the breeding season starts, but this can be challenging when the weather is bad. The use of cultivators to disturb the vegetation usually is not enough, as many plants regenerate quickly thereafter. The removal of vegetation by applying herbicides should be avoided due to other conservation goals at the sites. However, no matter which technique is preferred, the preparation process must be repeated annually.
During the breeding season, the lapwing plot should be left as set-aside, at least until about the end of June. Driving must be prohibited.
What About Predation?
To reduce the predation risk, fencing is a good and well-studied option (6, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15). Another good (low-budget) idea is to isolate the plot inside of the field away from edges and without connection to the tramlines (Fig. 1). This means that a separate headland (turnrow) should be placed around the plot. No perches for raptors should be erected at or close to the lapwing plot.
Sometimes, the question arose that avian predators could be attracted by the lapwing plots and therefore, predation rates can be much higher at the plots than at untreated, more hidden sites. This is not unlikely and is even not totally unintended, because providing such a site for one target species should always bring some benefits to others. However, during a five-year study in Saxony, Germany, crows and allies were not much more abundant at lapwing plots than at nearby damp sites without any treatment (4). On a landscape scale, it would be best to have lots of lapwing plots, which should reduce the risk of each one.
How well is the breeding success of Lapwings on the plots?
There are still not so much data about the number of fledglings on the lapwing plots, because the young are well-hidden in the vegetation and are difficult to observe. In Germany there was about one fledged chick per pair at lapwing plots, that was much higher than at other sites (6). However, what is known from England as yet, is rather worrying. Without fencing, losses of chicks to ground predators, that are abundant in many agricultural landscapes, can be high (16). Starvation due to a lack of proper food resources is common, probably especially when the plots are dry, hot frying pans with hard-baked soil (16). So, providing large plots with a permanent shallow pool of water, ideally fenced, should be the best way to increase the number of fledged young Lapwings.
Are there benefits for other species?
Beside the Lapwing, the plots provide habitat for other species. Eurasian Skylarks (Alauda arvensis) were abundant at lapwing plots in Germany as well as Western Yellow Wagtails (Motacilla flava) (4). At plots in England, positive effects were found additionally for buntings (Emberiza spec.), Common Linnet (Linaria cannabina), European Hare (Lepus europaeus), butterflies and bumblebees (17, 18). Finally, the plots provide space for many species of annual weeds (4, 18).
Lapwing plots provide breeding habitat for Lapwings and other farmland birds, e.g. Eurasian Skylark (Alauda arvensis). They should be at least 2 ha in size, be placed at traditional breeding sites (usually in some distance to vertical structures) and should provide a permanent shallow pool of water. An annual cycle to remove the vegetation, best by ploughing in autumn, is mandatory. Farmers can substitute their risky income at damp sites by money for an AES management option, and, by the way, fulfill their obligations to promote wildlife and biotope networks.
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Dr. Jan-Uwe Schmidt
Dresden Technical University, Institute of Geography, 01069 Dresden, Germany