I was aghast to learn a few days ago that the lapwing (or peewit, or green plover), Vanellus vanellus, is now a rare bird. A very long time ago, I saw hundreds of them every Sunday evening, and I had vaguely and mistakenly assumed that they (or rather their subsequent generations) were still trotting around where I had left them, but this, alas, is not so, and they are now categorised as having ‘red status’ by the RSPB.
This means (see the RSPB website):
- Globally threatened
- Historical population decline in UK during 1800–1995
- Severe (at least 50%) decline in UK breeding population over last 25 years, or longer-term period (the entire period used for assessments since the first BoCC review, starting in 1969).
- Severe (at least 50%) contraction of UK breeding range over last 25 years, or the longer-term period
The great Thomas Bewick (or possibly his apprentice-master and later partner Ralph Beilby) describes ‘The Pee-wit, lapwing, bastard plover, or te-wit’ (named Fringilla vanellus by Linnaeus and le vanneau by Buffon) as ‘about the size of a pigeon: Its bill is black; eyes large and hazel; the top of the head is black, glossed with green; a tuft of long narrow feathers issues from the back part of the head, some of which are four inches in length, and turn upwards at the end’ – this, of course, being the lapwing’s most obvious characteristic.
‘This bird is a constant inhabitant of this country; but as it subsists chiefly on worms, it is forced to change its place in quest of food, and is frequently seen in great numbers by the sea-shores, where it finds an abundant supply.’ This is where I used to see them. The Eastern Road in Portsmouth runs along the eastern side of the island of Portsea, where the dry land intermingled with marshes. And halfway along the road was Portsmouth airport (opened by the City Council in 1932). This grassy field, which was used in the postwar year by Channel Airways for flights to Paris and Jersey, was the home of hundreds of water-edge birds, among which flocks of lapwings predominated.
They seemed to co-habit quite happily with the (not very frequent) flights, taking off and resettling as need arose. (The aeroplanes were Dakotas – interesting to me as they were the civilian version of the RAF transport planes my father had flown in India and Burma during the Second World War – and later Hawker-Siddley turboprops, so there was no issue of birds being sucked into jet engines.)
Sadly, two accidents on 15 August 1967 (neither resulting in any injury, thank goodness), revealed the inadequacy of the runway for modern flights, and as there was no possibility of enlarging the site, the airport was now set on a downhill course. It was closed in 1973: ironically, the last landing (seven weeks after the official closure) was to bring Prime Minister Harold Wilson (doubtless radiating the white heat of technology) to the city. (I owe this useful information, and the pictures, to the Portsmouth Airport website.)
The site was developed as a housing estate (Anchorage Park), and the industries which had grown up in the area were joined by others to create the Airport Industrial Estate. But it was of course this development which did for the lapwing habitat. Happily, the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust now manages Farlington Marshes on Langstone Harbour, near the airport site, and they have lapwings, along with bearded tits, black-tailed godwits, little terns and Brent geese. This is encouraging, but clearly my picture-memory of the hundreds of birds pecking animatedly on the flat turf while their crests wavered in the breeze is likely to remain just a memory.
Bewick describes this ‘lively, active bird, almost continually in motion; it sports and frolics in the air in all directions, and assumes a variety of attitudes; it remains long upon the wing, and sometimes rises to a considerable height; it runs along the ground very nimbly, and springs and bounds from spot to spot with great agility’. Lapwings do not make nests: ‘The female lays four eggs, of a dirty olive, spotted with black’; she ‘deposits them upon a little dry grass hastily scraped together’.
Bewick goes on to describe the adults’ anxious care for the chicks, mobbing possible predators (including humans), and if necessary acting lame or wounded to decoy the threat away from their vulnerably young. (Mowing a meadow of nesting lapwings too early in spring can be a complete disaster.) On the pragmatic side, he also notes that ‘Their eggs are considered as a great delicacy, and are sold in the London markets at three shillings a dozen.’ Apparently, they were a great favourite with Queen Victoria, and the collecting of eggs for the gourmet market was a useful earner around Easter (and cannot have helped population numbers much): see this fascinating piece by Rebecca Hosking.
Bewick also provides a touching account of the art by which the bird ‘conciliates the regard of animals differing from itself in nature, and generally considered as hostile to every species of the feathered tribes’. A lapwing given to the Rev. J. Carlyle, and kept in his garden, became more and more tame as winter approached, asking to be let into the house with its ‘peewit’ call, sharing a place by the kitchen fire with the dog and the cat, and washing itself in the dog’s water-bowl. Sadly, ‘He died in the asylum he had chosen, being choaked with something which he picked up from the floor.’
To see some wonderful photographs of lapwings, go to Bob the Birder’s website. And keep a lookout for these sporting and frolicking birds!