Limosa limosa

The godwit (Limosa limosa) is the Dutch national meadow bird, sInce 2015. It has a remarkable feeling for calendar time, according to Theunis Piersma, an acclaimed ornithologist on migrating birds. After the summer the godwit flies several days, with a short stopover in Spain and Portugal, to spend the winter in West Africa. In March it returns to the Netherlands to raise its offspring in our peatland meadows. Piersma and his co-workers have fitted several godwits with an ultra light transmitter. This allows them to track and trace the birds on a daily basis in order to map their route. The gathered data show that the godwit returns every spring on almost the exact same date, within a margin of two days. I find that extraordinary.

Unfortunately things are not looking good for the godwit. Every year we see fewer birds in the Netherlands, because it is becoming more and more difficult for them to raise their young. In de past fifty years their numbers have drastically declined from 120,000 breeding pairs in the sixties till 33,000 today. According to Piersma this is caused by our intensive agriculture method used on modern dairy farms, like the mandatory slurry injection in the turf and the monocultures of protein-rich rye grass. The mechanical injection of slurry in the upper layers of the meadows causes the soil to dry faster and leads to a hard top layer. This distorts the capillarity of the soil: moisture is not replaced from the deeper layers of the soil, which leads to drying, and hardening of the soil. Piersma calls this “Concrete soil”. Subsequently it’s more difficult for the young birds to reach the worms they feed on, which causes them to starve. Besides, due to the diminishing of the biodiversity (less insects, less worms etc.) in the fields there is less food available anyway. Predators take care of what’s left. The mandatory slurry injections were well intended, but in hindsight it has been a misguided decision. The question is, when will we correct this mistake that has been interfering with soil life for the past twenty-five years?

Piersma pleads for more biodiversity, flowery field margins and old-fashioned solid dung. It also seems logical to plead for small-scale production, but it’s not that simple. Even a farm that produces on a large scale can stimulate biodiversity and operate in a nature inclusive way. Diversity in farm size seems to be the best option, so farmers can choose what is the most suitable option for them. I recently noticed during a national meeting on agriculture and food, that this discussion becomes almost religious, where small-scale represents the good and large-scale, the bad. This appeals to the sentiment that in days gone by everything was much better and our tendency to judge quickly and look for simple solutions, but this has little to do with reality.

Large-scale and small-scale production can peaceful co-exist. Both are not by definition right or wrong. It’s the quality of the business plan and the operational management that makes the difference. Just as well as there are very good small-scale farmers with a lot of attention for biodiversity, a healthy soil and a beautiful product, there are also small-scale farmers who couldn’t care less, make a mess, neglect their livestock and who could better stop immediately. Large-scale production offers, besides threats, also opportunities for large-scale sustainability. Improving the medium and large-scale agriculture companies makes sense, even though it is one step at the time. If this will lead to a growing godwit population in the Netherlands over the next ten years, this would make us very happy.

Sytze Keuning (

Published in the journal Bodem.