Lapwing Vanellus vanellus, standing in shallow water, Geltsdale RSPB reserve, Cumbria, England

Population trends

Lapwing numbers have decreased in Britain since the middle of the 19th century.

Lapwing declines

The early declines were caused by large scale collection of eggs for food. Introduction of the Lapwing Act in 1926 prohibited this, and was followed by a considerable recovery in bird numbers.

Since the 1940s lapwing declines have been driven by large-scale changes to farming. Large areas of grassland were converted to arable, marginal land was drained and improved, and chemicals were introduced for fertilisers and pest control with increasing reliance on them. By 1960 the lapwing population had stabilised at a lower level.

Another sharp and sustained decline started in the mid-1980s, with range contractions in south-west England and in parts of Wales. This followed further intensification and specialisation - abandonment of rotations, switch from spring to autumn sown crops, increased drainage, increased use of agrochemicals. Such changes have resulted in much of the arable land becoming unsuitable for nesting by April because the crop grows too high. Tillage, drainage and pesticides have also caused a reduction in food availability. 

As pasture land is improved, the resulting increased risk of trampling by livestock, earlier cutting for silage and lower food availability have affected lapwings adversely. Phasing out of rotational farming and shift of arable to the east of England and pastureland to the west of England has removed the habitat mosaic that is essential for successful chick rearing. 

Mosaic where grass and spring tillage fields are close together has declined significantly in recent years, and the loss of this prime habitat has resulted in a decline in lapwing numbers. 

Nest failures on arable land come from egg losses during cultivation and from predation, and poor chick survival due to crop growth. Crop growth can also shorten the laying season.

Lapwing Vanellus vanellus, adult, male in breeding habitat pasture, Northumberland

Declines around the UK

The declines in lapwing population have been greatest in southern England and Wales, where the farming changes have been greatest and farmland is the only suitable habitat for the lapwing. Between 1987 and 1998 lapwing numbers dropped by 49 per cent in England and Wales. Since 1960 the numbers dropped by 80 per cent. 

The birds have fared better in Scotland, where the crucial changes to farming were introduced later than in England and Wales. However, even there the numbers have dropped by 29 per cent since 1987.

 Lapwing Vanellus vanellus, amongst grass

Helping lapwings

Lapwings have to fledge at least 0.6 young per pair each year to maintain the population. They usually can achieve this in rough grazing and unimproved pastures, but often not on arable land or improved grassland. Since the birds cannot produce enough chicks to offset the natural mortality of adults, population declines.

It is possible to halt and reverse the decline in lapwing numbers with sympathetic farming methods, which include creation of a mosaic of spring sown crops and grassland, managing grazing pressure and maintaining damp areas on unimproved grassland. Agri-environment schemes in each part of the UK provide grants to help land-owners manage their land to help lapwings.

Young Lapwing on Alistair Robb's farm. Stirlingshire. Scotland.

Survival of lapwing chicks

Egg survival and hatching success varies depending on the habitat, and appears to have declined in some habitats over the past decade. 

Main causes of nest failure are predation, agricultural activity and desertion. While the birds often re-lay, changes in cropping practices often result in the habitat being unsuitable for replacement clutches because the vegetation has grown too tall, thus shortening the potential breeding season.

Only about 25-40 per cent of chicks survive to fledging. Most of the chick mortality occurs in the first few days after hatching, when chicks are most vulnerable to cold or wet weather, and when they may be undertaking hazardous journeys from nesting to feeding areas. The further chicks have to go, the lower their survival. 

Once the birds have reached adulthood, they can expect to live a further 4-5 years. The oldest known individual was about 20 years. Lapwings normally breed one year after fledging.

Young Lapwing on Alistair Robb's farm. Stirlingshire