· Success for rare stone-curlews after four-year collaboration between farmers, RSPB and Natural England
· Nearly 300 safe nest plots created each year and 3000 hectares of habitat - the size of a small city - for this beguiling bird, reducing dependency on labour-intensive conservation methods
· RSPB hopes the UK stone-curlew population will be self-sustaining within five years - but support from land owners and government schemes still crucialto enable farmers to continue to create safe nesting habitat.
Farmers in the UK, together with the RSPB and Natural England, have helped secure the long-term recovery of a rare bird. Thanks to their work as part of a four-year EU LIFE+ project, stone-curlews now have more safe nesting habitat away from crops, leading to hopes that their UK population will become sustainable within the next five years.
Stone-curlews are crow-sized birds with large, yellow eyes which help them see at night when they are most active. Once widespread across farmland and heathland, numbers crashed by 85% between the 1930s and 1980s due to habitat loss and changes in farming methods. Today, most of the breeding population is concentrated to small areas in the Brecks on the Norfolk/Suffolk border, and around Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire.
Without intervention from conservationists, the stone-curlew population was expected to continue declining steadily each year.
Stone-curlews, which are masters of camouflage, make their nests on the ground, in areas of low vegetation to enable them to see predators. However this puts them at risk from farm machinery - leading to dramatic declines in these birds in the second half of the 20th century. They also need quiet open spaces, away from developments. As such, site protection will remain important in the future.
For 30 years, RSPB volunteers and fieldworkers worked tirelessly to find and mark nests, sometimes even lifting up individual chicks during farming operations and returning them afterwards. This work had been funded by Action for Birds in England, administered by Natural England until 2009 when the stone-curlew population exceeded 350 pairs. However a more lasting solution was needed to replace this expensive and labour-intensive approach.
To secure the future of these iconic birds, the RSPB and Natural England have been working with landowners and farmers to create more habitat suitable for nesting stone-curlews. The £1.3 million 'Securing the stone-curlew' project, funded by EU LIFE, began in 2012 with the aim of increasing the number of stone-curlew nesting on safe ground to 300 pairs - equivalent to three quarters of the UK population. The aim was also to establish a self-sustaining population which is less dependent on labour-intensive nest protection - crucial for the birds' long-term survival.
To do this, in the Brecks and in Wessex, south-west England, farmers have been creating 'fallow plots' on or near their fields which will lay undisturbed by machinery, allowing stone-curlews to nest in peace. This also benefits rare plants, insects and other birds such as the threatened turtle dove which feed on the seeds from these plants.
Nearly 300 of these nest sites are now created by farmers each year, with support from stewardship schemes, and over 3,000 hectares of grassland habitat - the size of a small city - is now being restored to create the right conditions for stone-curlews. With that, 144 more chicks fledged in 2015-16 compared to 2012-13. More information: https://www.rspb.org.uk/Images/project_leaflet_tcm9-350935.pdf
Emily Field, stone-curlew project manager, says: "Stone-curlews are beguiling birds which are the subject of many a myth. Also fondly known as 'thick knees', 'goggle-eyed plover' and 'wailing heath chicken', it was once thought that staring into their yellow eyes could cure jaundice. To lose these magnificent birds from the UK would be a terrible shame. Ensuring there is enough safe nesting habitat for them in the future is essential."
Emily adds: "For several decades, the RSPB monitored the bulk of the UK population annually by finding every nest. But as the population has grown, this has become very time-consuming and unsustainable. Therefore we have been developing other ways to estimate the UK stone-curlew population."
Local volunteers in some areas have been trained to monitor and protect stone-curlews under licence. By monitoring a 'patch' annually, the RSPB can use their data to assess the population. And many larger landowners are now equipped to monitor and protect stone-curlews on their land.
Rachel Hosier owns a farm in Wiltshire where stone-curlews breed. In 2004, she agreed with the RSPB to make part of her land into a nature reserve to help support these and other farmland birds, and to allow visitors the pleasure of seeing them.
Says Rachel: "My earliest memories of stone curlews were as a young girl sitting in my father's Land Rover while he checked the cows calving in spring. I'll never forget the sight of that strangely prehistoric looking bird with the eerie call. In those days there were no schemes available to help these rare birds, but as my father was a great lover of wildlife we did what we could to help.
"The introduction of funding schemes to support nature has enabled us to do far more. Added to this, the greater understanding of the birds' needs, coupled with monitoring, and we have seen a steady growth in the stone curlew population over the years.
"It's a real 'wow' factor seeing a group of 50 stone-curlews, and I am proud that we've been able to play our part in the success of the species. I am also thrilled that now my daughter comes out with me when I am checking the cows at springtime and she too has an interest in this incredible bird."
Read more about 'stone-curlew heroes' in this blog.
A spokesperson from Natural England says: "We are delighted to be involved in this exciting project, which is just the sort of lifeline stone-curlews need. We will help to ensure that the designated sites, currently supporting about half of stone-curlews, each support their target populations and work hard to agree stone-curlew friendly management across their range."
Gerald Grey, gamekeeper in the Norfolk Brecks, adds: "The estate is managed as a farm business, a game shoot, and for the benefit of wildlife. It's a great example of how all these interests can be integrated through good conservation management. This benefits not only stone-curlews but also a diverse range of species."
Martin Harper, RSPB director of conservation, says: "The legacy of this project is a healthy population of stone-curlews, which we hope will become sustainable within five years if enough habitat is created. With the stone-curlew 'stable', this would allow us to focus on other critical species in need of help.
"We trust that communities, landowners and managers, volunteers, and government organisations will continue to protect this special species for generations to come."
A Securing the stone-curlew end of project conference will take place at the David Attenborough Building, Cambridge, on 28 February 2017. This will be a chance to share lessons from this exemplary species recovery project and celebrate the role that farmers and other 'stone-curlew heroes' have played in the success story.
1. 1. The RSPB is the UK's largest nature conservation charity, inspiring everyone to give nature a home. Together with our partners, we protect threatened birds and wildlife so our towns, coast and countryside will teem with life once again. We play a leading role in BirdLife International, a worldwide partnership of nature conservation organisations. www.rspb.org.uk
2. About the stone-curlew: A strange, rare summer visitor to southern England, the stone-curlew is a crow-sized bird with a large head, stern yellow eyes and long yellow legs. Active at night, its large eyes enable it to locate food in the dark. It is not related to curlews and gets its name from its curlew-like call. Find out more.
3. Stone-curlew populations depend on European protection and research funded by EU money. In 2012, the RSPB secured funding for a four year EU LIFE+ information and communications project: Securing the future of the stone-curlew throughout its range in the UK to promote sustainable habitat management for the species. Securing the stone-curlew is funding three advisers to help farmers and landowners to create more safe nesting habitats. www.rspb.org.uk/securingthestonecurlew
LIFE is the EU's financial instrument supporting environmental, nature conservation and climate action projects throughout the EU. Since 1992, LIFE has co-financed some 4,171 projects, contributing approximately €3.4 billion to the protection of the environment and climate.
4. The Brecks grass heath management study is part of Action for Birds in England, a conservation partnership between Natural England and the RSPB. Natural England and the RSPB have joined forces to combine their conservation expertise and scientific research under a programme called Action for Birds in England. This innovative partnership programme is helping us to develop understanding, improve protection and work for the recovery of some of England's most threatened birds.