Print page

The decline of lapwings

The lapwing (Vanellus vanellus) belongs to the family of plovers, which are wading birds.

It is sometimes known as a 'peewit' due to the distinctive call. Its natural distribution extends across the whole of the United Kingdom, where it feeds on arable and grass farmland throughout the year.

It mainly eats invertebrates such as wireworms, leatherjackets and earthworms and so, in the past, was considered the farmer's friend. Lapwings may also be found in damp rushy fields, coastal marshes and moorland when breeding, and many join other waders on freshwater margins and coastal sands and mudflats during winter. 

Lapwings have declined in number through changes in agricultural practices over the last century, as have skylarks and turtle doves. Lapwing numbers have halved in the last 10 years. 

Curriculum links

England and Wales -Investigative Skills - 2 (l)(Double) (to present qualitative and quantitative data)
Northern Ireland - Experimental and Investigative Science - Presenting and interpreting data (a) (present results in ways which suit data collected)


Student Sheet 1 (click here), graph paper, pens, pencils, rulers, calculators

Age range

14 - 16


For those who find maths and graph-drawing problematic, this part of the exercise could be ignored. The questions can still be answered fully. 

The activity

Students analyse data on Student Sheet 1 (click here) relating to the estimated population size for lapwings across several regions of England and Wales, and draw a graph of percentage changes in population between 1987 and 1998. Students then consider a range of agricultural practices which could be linked to population declines, and decide for themselves which could have been most influential. 

Extension activities

Students could design a leaflet to inform farmers about lapwings. This could include agricultural practices which affect lapwing populations, and suggestions for possible measures to enhance their chances of survival. This may involve some independent research on the part of the students and so could be suitable as a homework task. 

Teachers' answers

Answers to Student Sheet

Which region had the greatest population of lapwings in 1998?

How many had populations above 4,500 birds?
5 (North England, North West England, South East England, West Midlands, Yorks/Humberside)

Draw a graph of the percentage changes in lapwing population sizes from 1987 to 1998, for the different regions across England and Wales. Before starting, think how best to represent this data. Remember titles and labels.

Which region is suffering with the greatest rate of lapwing population decline?

The farming practices most likely to cause lapwing population declines are in bold below:

  • Sowing of cereal crops in autumn, so that by spring the crops are too high for lapwings to be able to breed successfully. They do not breed well in densely vegetated habitats (the same is true of skylarks).
  • Drainage and destruction of wetlands - immediate loss of habitat
  • Drainage of ponds and ditches on farms - loss of habitat for insects and other invertebrates, fed upon by lapwings
  • Growing of silage (tall, dense grass which is stored and fed to livestock) - loss of preferred nesting and feeding habitat
  • Removal of hedgerows - loss of habitat for insects and other invertebrates (food for lapwings)
  • Ploughing up of grasslands - immediate loss of habitat, although lapwing will nest on ploughed land
  • Removal of woods and copses on farms - loss of habitat for insects and other invertebrates, feed upon by lapwings  

All farming practices above could, in theory, lead to lapwing populations declining, and so this activity could lead into a class discussion on which are the most important ones.There are many theories which you could put forward. However, the following were red herrings:

  • BSE in cattle. There is no known connection with decline in lapwing numbers.
  • Reduction in number of SSSIs: only a negligible number of lapwing populations live on SSSIs.
  • Sea level rise - not enough known about it yet for there to be any connection with decline in lapwing populations.