I have been driving on many quiet country roads local to my area in recent days. With spring-sown cereal crops coming through the ground the fields are now perfect for the scourge of the countryside: hare coursers. Hares are often clearly visible sitting in the short swards of grain and they are likely to remain sitting, thinking they are hidden, as men and dogs approach. If, as I have often done, you walk slightly to the left or right of the sitting hare rather than directly towards it, it will sometimes sit until you are almost upon it before bounding off. Getting as close as this gives the hare little chance of escape against two dogs.
Bear in mind now if you witness hare coursing that one witness is sufficient for a conviction in Scotland. In addition an offence is committed even if you have strong suspicions that men with dogs in a field are after hares though they are not coursing at the time. This is more difficult to prove but it is an offence to attempt to commit the offence of coursing, possess anything capable of being used to commit the offence (which may be binoculars, slip leads or dogs) or to search for a hare to course. In relation to brown hares they now have a close season in Scotland from 1st February to 30th September, which gives them extra protection during the breeding season. Unfortunately the close season does not deter hare coursers but it can be an extra charge with which the police can charge the men and an extra penalty which the court can impose. I have been pleased to see a good number of convictions in England and Scotland recently. In the most recent the person convicted, a man with whom I had considerable dealings while wildlife crime officer, received a custodial sentence. Some are now also served with an anti-social behaviour order, which can severely limit their coursing in the future.
Though I have seen many brown hares on my recent travels I have looked in vain round the fields in my area for lapwings. Two years ago there were three or four pairs displaying in one particular ploughed field. During May that year the field was cultivated and peas were sown. No doubt the lapwing eggs or chicks perished and I never saw the lapwings again. Last year I saw a solitary pair displaying over a stubble field. A week or so later this field was cultivated and spring cereal sown. Again this was the end of the lapwings, which disappeared. This year I haven’t even seen a pair of lapwings nor have I heard their peeee-weep, weep weep, peeee-weep call associated with their tumbling display. Even oystercatchers seem thin on the ground, with only one pair being seen on a newly-rolled field a couple of days ago.
While waders breed successfully on hill and marginal ground it seems now that they have all but disappeared from arable land. At this time of year they still have time to lay a clutch of eggs and rear chicks but with so much spraying of crops for weed and insect pests is it the lack of food for chicks that has made them such an uncommon bird on arable fields? Could it also be the late cultivating of fields for pea and bean crops – crops which were seldom seen when was young and lapwings were plentiful – or is it the late rolling of grass fields for hay and silage crops? I suspect it is a combination of all of these factors. Is the answer to compensate farmers to take a suitable damp chunk of land out of production?
On a brighter note, of late I have seen a marked increase in yellowhammers. I’ve no idea the reason but I am now seeing yellowhammers everywhere, especially perching on telephone wires alongside quiet country roads. Their increase is a bit strange since they depend to a large extent on weed seeds that are negatively affected in much the same way as the insects on which lapwings depend. Whatever the reason that I am now seeing many more of them the sightings are welcome. They are lovely birds and I look forward now to hearing their ‘little bit of bread and no cheese’ song when they start to breed from May onwards.