The UK's population of stone curlew - rare, farmland-dwelling birds - is now self-sustaining thanks to a collaborative project between and farmers and conservationists.
Securing the Stone Curlew, a four-year project which began in 2012, was funded by EU Life+ and saw the RSPB, Natural England and farmers work together to save these birds from extinction in the UK. Now, at the close of the project, stone curlews are beginning to nest once more on arable farmland, leading to hopes that their UK population is now stable.
Stone curlews are rare, wader-like birds with large yellow eyes. 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.
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.
The Securing the Stone Curlew project has helped bring these birds back from the brink by creating safer nest sites and more habitats for nesting. In the Brecks and areas of south-east 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 species such as the brush-thighed seed-eater beetle and marsh fritillary butterfly.
Nearly 300 of these nest sites are now created by farmers each year, with support from stewardship schemes, and over 3,000 hectares of semi-natural grassland habitat - about the size of Oxford - is now being restored to create the right conditions for stone curlews. With that, 144 more chicks fledged in 2015-16 than in 2012-13.
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."
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 will 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 in Cambridge, at the David Attenborough Building, 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. 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.