The missing waders (and not a raven to be seen either)

Lapwing and chick on farmland on North Uist

Oystercatcher on nest on farmland on North Uist

Oystercatcher nest on farmland in Perthshire

I was at Kirkcaldy Sheriff Court on Thursday to give evidence of opinion in a hare coursing trial. I travelled there and back by train, which is much more relaxing than driving.  It is also a great opportunity to see how the sowing of crops is progressing and to look at both wildlife and farm animals.

Fertiliser has now been put on many fields and grass and winter cereal crops are fairly greening up. Leaves are starting to appear on some trees but are still away behind the norm. Probably those that looked best were the hawthorn trees on railway bankings, interspersed in many places with yellow primroses.

Many fields had been recently sown with spring cereal, harrowed and rolled. I expected to see one or two oystercatchers sitting disconsolately in these barren fields, having lost their clutch of eggs to the farm machinery, but they were as bare of birds as they were of any greenery. There were still many fields that had been ploughed in the autumn awaiting the arrival of a tractor and implements to sow or to plant whatever crop was to be grown there. These are favourite nesting places for both oystercatchers and lapwings. I looked in vain for any lapwings tumbling over the field in their fantastic spring display, all the while calling peeee-weep, weep weep, peeee-weep (which of course I wouldn’t have heard from the train). I looked also for the easily spotted black and white oystercatchers that may have been sitting on eggs. Nothing. Bare. Empty.

I was surprised seeing one or two lovely marshy patches on the west side of the train. Some of those would be ideal for nesting waders, especially curlew. Again, not a single wader graced these areas, I visualised a curlew rising in the air and fluttering back to the ground in their typical springtime display. Unfortunately not even a mirage. Even grass fields with sheep, where I might have expected there to have been a few feeding waders, held nothing but a few jackdaws. No waders, and not a single raven to be seen either.

When I think of the numbers of waders (and skylarks) on farmland when I was younger it is really sad that now that these same fields are almost completely devoid of these lovely birds. The cause is clearly in a change in farming practices, where almost every nest in cultivated and even some grass fields fields is flattened. Worse still, if the birds manage to re-lay and hatch chicks, these is so much spraying of insecticides that chicks have no food supply.

Is this not a more important type of habitat for Scottish Natural Heritage to be encouraging change rather than in the Perthshire uplands? Would many more areas left uncultivated, undrained, deliberately flooded (by beavers?) and with no spraying of pesticides not be worth encouraging, especially if a subsidy was available?

The only good news of the day was the hare coursing case. Of the two accused, one failed to appear and a warrant was granted for his arrest. At the last minute (4.00 pm) the other accused change his plea to guilty of attempting to take a hare with a dog. He was fined £500, which the sheriff reduced to £450 for his eventual guilty plea. (see )

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