An increasingly rare breeding bird has returned to a designated peatland site in Co. Down for the first time in many years.

Two breeding pairs of lapwing were discovered this summer at Lecale Fens Special Area of Conservation (SAC), outside Downpatrick.

It follows ongoing efforts by Ulster Wildlife to help restore nature in the area.

The charity has been working closely with local farmer John Crea to improve the condition of this designated site by eliminating invasive species and scrub, such as rhododendron, using amphibious machinery.

Rare bird

Similar to many other ground-nesting birds, the lapwing has suffered major declines over the last 40 years due to the loss of wetland habitat and changes in farming practices.

The bird is now red-listed on the birds of conservation concern in Ireland and is a Northern Ireland priority species because of its decline, rarity and importance.

The lapwing requires “a mosaic of habitats” in order to breed and prefers boggy open areas with bare ground or short vegetation, avoiding areas of dense cover.

“After a chance conversation with the farmer, we visited the fen to witness several newly fledged chicks, alongside their parents,” Simon Gray, peatland conservation officer with Ulster Wildlife, said.

“It was fantastic to see them darting around the muddy pools that have formed since we removed four hectares of dense and encroaching vegetation – creating the ideal open wet habitat these endangered birds need to thrive.

“In the past, this area was managed by grazing or burning to stop scrub taking over and drying out the fen but given climate concerns associated with peat burning and risks to livestock from deep water, we had to come up with new and innovative solutions.

“Five years later and we’re thrilled to see our restoration efforts reap rewards for biodiversity with Lecale Fens moving towards a healthy condition again.

“This will have a knock-on effect on other wetland-loving wildlife too such as dragonflies, snipe and silver hook moth,” he added.

John Crea said he was delighted to see the lapwing back on his farm.

“It’s brilliant to see these birds doing so well and we hope they come back again next year to breed,” he said.

Ulster Wildlife is currently working with landowners across Northern Ireland to restore designated peatland sites along with large-scale peatland areas in need of restoration.

The aim is to help bring back the rich diversity of species these sites once supported, as well as the host of benefits peatlands provide from flood prevention to carbon sequestration.

“With over 75% of land in Northern Ireland farmed, it is vital that farmers and landowners are properly supported to help restore nature on a landscape scale with peatland sites, such as this, playing a vital role in helping to tackle the nature and climate crisis,” Gray said.