Black-tailed godwit book wins Jan Wolkers Prize

This 16 October 2016 video was recorded in the Lakenhal museum in Leiden, the Netherlands. In the background, a reproduction of the triptych The Last Judgment, by sixteenth century painter Lucas van Leyden. The original was not exhibited then, as 16 October was the last day the museum was open to the public before a big reconstruction.

On that day there, the Jan Wolkers Prize, the prize for the best Dutch natural history book of the year, was awarded. The prize is named after Dutch visual artist and author Jan Wolkers, keenly interested in wildlife. Jan’s widow Karina Wolkers was a member of the jury, and awarded the prize.

The winner was De Grutto (The black-tailed godwit), a book by Albert Beintema.

There was a shortlist of five nominated books. The authors of three of these books lectured about their work in the Lakenhal. As this blog has reported, first Ms Arita Baaijens. Then, the two authors of the book about crustacean scientist Lipke B. Holthuis.

And as third speaker came Albert Beintema; including slides about black-tailed godwits. Cellphone photos of these slides are in this blog post.

Black-tailed godwit on a pole, 16 October 2016

This was the first slide, of a black-tailed godwit on a pole.

Beintema mentioned that famous Dutch naturalist Jac. P. Thijsse had called the black-tailed godwit ‘the king of the grassland birds‘.

Fifty years ago, this species had 120,000 nesting couples in the Netherlands; 80% of the total for all of Europe. Of the Icelandic subspecies there were then only 5,000 couples.

Now, there are only 40,000 couples in the Netherlands. While the number of Icelandic couples has risen to 50,000.

What is the cause of this decline of this bird; which recently won the vote for national bird of the Netherlands?

Various people name various possible causes for the decline of Dutch black-tailed godwits.

Is it crows, or birds of prey, as hunters often say? No.

Is it red foxes, as hunters also often say? No; or only to a small extent.

Is it because those horrible people in Africa are all the time shooting godwits when they winter in Africa, as prejudiced people in the Netherlands say? No; not true.

Is it because in Friesland province until recently it was legal to collect northern lapwings’ eggs, as many conservationists outside Friesland and also some in Friesland say? No, to a large extent. It was not legal to take godwits’ eggs; and in other provinces than Friesland, taking lapwings‘ eggs was illegal as well.

Is it because there have been drastic ecological changes in farmland in the Netherlands during the past fifty years, leading to more chances of godwit eggs being destroyed by agricultural equipment?

Godwit eggs destroyed

Economical and ecological changes leading to less food and greater chances of being killed by agricultural equipment for young godwits?

Lapwing nest

Economical and ecological changes leading to more cows per meadow, meaning more chances of cows trampling nests, not only of the northern lapwing in this picture, but of black-tailed godwits as well?

Yes, that is the main cause, according to Beintema.

This is mainly not the fault of farmers as individuals, but of the economic context in which the ‘free market’, the Dutch government and the European Union compelled them to work.

There was and is pressure on farmers to stop ‘old fashioned’ farming, and to become agribusiness businessmen, in dog eat dog competition in which big farmers survive and small farmers perish.


Sicco Mansholt, first Dutch Minister of Agriculture, later European Commissioner of Agriculture, bears a big part of the blame for this, according to Beintema. Mansholt later, after his retirement, expressed better ideas than when he was still an active politician. He said he regretted the damage he had done to small farmers and the farmland environment. However, this is part of a more general problem, of politicians getting better ideas after they have retired; thought they should have been earlier with these.

Godwits in Portugal

These birds are so beautiful, Beintema said, showing this slide of ten thousands of godwits on a small wetland in Portugal during spring migration.

Is there a chance of keeping black-tailed godwits as nesting birds in the Netherlands? Yes, in spite of all problems, said Beintema. Scientists like Theunis Piersma are taking good pro-godwit initiatives. We should change agricultural policies (difficult because of the powerful Big Agribusiness lobby). Some farmers farm in a pro-grassland birds way (like on Terschelling island, as Beintema told me). Also, in nature reserves, godwits can survive.

14 thoughts on “Black-tailed godwit book wins Jan Wolkers Prize

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