The Lapwing – the unsung hero of Easter and farmland icon
Rebecca Hosking, who co-wrote and presented BBC2's 'Farm For A Future' film and now lives on her family's mixed farm, explains why the endangered lapwing is the true iconic Easter bird and is so important on the farm
"I'd been walking for a good hour across moors... still nothing. The only sounds were the wind swirling around the gorse, the crack of the heather under my feet and a lone skylark calling from on high. Still I kept scanning the landscape – then, without warning, two bouldered over my head – wheeling and diving; with flick flacks and barrel rolls their audacious aerobatics, putting a veteran Red Arrow pilot to shame.
Then I heard those high, slurred wheezy notes – so nostalgic I couldn't help but burst into a beaming smile. There in front of me a pair of lapwings performing their courtship sky dance, or 'wing music'."
From my diary, 14th April 2011: Dartmoor
I should admit upfront the Northern Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus) is my favourite British farmland bird, they always have been. As a schoolgirl I remember being transfixed by them wintering in our pastures. I would sit at the dining room window trying to draw them in my school book. This is when I had ideas above my station of being the next Sir Peter Scott.
I wish I could be a bit more original in my choice – it seems I share this avian adoration with many others. The lapwing is consistently voted in the top five of Britain's favourite birds and few other species match its importance in our cultural history at this time of year.
Peewit, green plover, chewit, tuefit, toppyup, peasiewheep, teewhup, ticks nicket and here in Devon they're known as hornywinks... Just a few of its vernacular county names and testimony to this bird's remarkable spring display, its memorable call, exquisite plumage and also its ability to colonise pretty much every type of farmland territory. The lapwing is as closely associated with arable flatlands as the windy Welsh hills, the boggy Somerset levels and the Scottish highlands and every other type of farmland in between.
Along with the cuckoo, the lapwing's call was the classic countryside herald of the start of Spring and is for me the embodiment of Easter. So many of our Easter customs are linked to the lapwing yet most have forgotten or overlooked this little bird's importance.
Real Easter Eggs
With the shops now brimming with gaudily wrapped chocolate eggs, it's a far cry from the Easter egg's origins. It seems the tradition of giving eggs at Easter came over to our shores with the Saxons. The Venerable Bede in the 8th Century recorded eggs were exchanged and eaten in Ēostur-monath, the Anglo-Saxon month equivalent to April.
Most bird eggs were eaten at this time but the poor lapwing bore the brunt as its eggs were reputably rich and delicious, and being a ground nesting bird, they were easily harvested. Put it down to bad nest timing but for a millennium in this country lapwing eggs were eaten in and around Easter. However it was the Victorians, as with so many things, that took it too far.
Lapwing eggs - or plover eggs as they were known - had turned into a vast commercial market with reports of basket after bucket of plover eggs for sale in London's markets at Easter. Queen Victoria favoured her plover eggs cooked in aspic and Mrs Beaton supplied several recipes for the discerning cook.
With this demand came dedicated teams of 'egg pickers'. In 20 years they had stripped the whole of the south of England as far up as Lincolnshire. By the end of the 1880's plover eggs had to be ferried in from as far a field as the Scottish highlands and Holland. It was only in 1926 and the introduction of the Lapwing Act did this officially stop.
It is from this wild harvest, however, that historians believe lie the origins to the classic Easter custom of the egg hunt. Lapwing eggs hidden in the long grasses would be fairly difficult to find and the children's garden egg hunt is most likely mimicking this pursuit.
The True Easter Bunny
Bizarrely it seems we also have the lapwing to thank for the Easter Bunny. Originally the Easter bunny was a hare but an animal so entrenched in Pagan lore was deemed 'unfitting' for Christian purposes. Hares, unlike rabbits, live their entire lives above ground. They hide from predators by making a shallow indentation in the soil known as a form. Lapwings classically inhabit the same territories as hares and make a scrape of a nest on the ground; in fact, quite often a lapwing will hijack a hare's form and lay eggs in it.
So you can forgive country folk of old for stumbling upon a lapwing nest with hare droppings in it or accidently flushing a hare and finding a lapwing nest and coming to the conclusion that hares laid eggs. Today, hares have undergone something of a renaissance in popular culture but I feel sorry for the poor lapwing. She's treated as a bit part in this story but it's she who laid the eggs that gave the hare its magical persona.
Overlooked they maybe but you would think, with the 1926 act, lapwings would now be safe. Sadly that's far from the truth - their demise has been precipitous. It's been a death of a thousand cuts; wetlands drained, increased use of insecticides and synthetic fertilizers, the change from spring sown cereals to winter ones, the loss of fallow land, more hills walkers, more dog owners, and the old chestnut of higher livestock density and so on.
In short we've upped cheap food production to suit consumer needs and the countryside has become far more busy. In the last 10 years alone the UK has lost between 50% to 70% of its nesting pairs. Now the lapwing is firmly on the RSPB red list of the most endangered UK bird species.
As for here in Devon, well we always were on the peripheries of their range. The last lapwing to nest on our farm was in 1955 and in my lifetime the figures for Devon speak for themselves. In 1977 there were over 500 nesting pairs; in 1987 (when I sat down to draw them as a child) there were less than 300 pairs; and today, according to Devon Bird Watching & Preservation Society (DBWPS), there is only one confirmed nesting pair.... the pair I saw on the moor last week.
The joy I experienced while watching them has now turned to deep sorrow on hearing this news. The bird that would have danced on the wind above the first Neolithic Devon field systems is now down to its very last recorded pair in over two and a half thousand square miles.
Why Lapwings are the Farmer's Friend
The biggest losses have been on farmland yet, with spectacular irony, historically the lapwing was known as the 'farmers friend'. A decent population of lapwings on your land will rid pastures of wireworms, leatherjackets and importantly water snails – the carriers of that loathsome parasite, the liver fluke.
Organisations such as Natural England and the RSPB have worked hard on grant schemes to encourage farmers to leave squares of land out of food production at nesting time. This has had some success and although very admirable the ideology behind this form of preservation drives me nuts.
For too long in this country we have separated food production from wildlife welfare and it seems never the twain shall meet. It's like a milling crowd being ordered into line... "All those for wildlife stand to the left: all those for food production move to the right."
This is where I tip my hat to the practices of permaculture and its understanding of applied ecology. A healthy diversity of beetles, bats, spiders, sparrows, worms, wasps, fungus, flies, hedgehogs, hares, ladybirds and, of coarse, lapwings all conspire to grow more and healthier food for us monkeys.
Lastly, if you're reading this and are still have lapwings nesting near you then for one you are incredibly lucky and you should salute them. Salute them for all they have brought to Easter customs and culture but more importantly salute them for just being there, after all they've been through it's incredible that they are.
A very Happy Easter to all, where ever you are.
Rebecca and Tim write a regular BLOG on permaculture and farming for Pm online at http://www.permaculture.co.uk/search/node/Rebecca%20Hosking
A wonderful piece- thank you. I've noticed a steady and depressing decline of lapwing numbers on the Lincolnshire fens, where I live. Not only are breeding numbers down, but during the past two winters, the flocks of lapwing plus golden plover have been getting steadily smaller.
My blog's here, in case you're interested. http://silvertreedaze.blogspot.com/