UK first as experts use GPS to keep tabs on elusive stone-curlews

Rupert Masefield

Monday 8 August 2016

For the first time in the UK, scientists working in the wildlife-rich Brecks region of East Anglia - straddling the border between West-Norfolk and Suffolk - are using high-tech GPS tags to study the movements of one of the country's most threatened birds, the stone-curlew.

Stone-curlews, crow-sized birds with large, bright yellow eyes, were close to becoming extinct as breeding birds in the UK 30 years ago. Thanks to conservation efforts, around 400 pairs of stone-curlews now breed in the UK each year - more than half of those in Eastern England.

By using GPS tracking to learn more about how these shy and elusive birds use different areas of the countryside, researchers hope to help landowners create the conditions stone-curlews need for nesting and feeding, in order to ultimately achieve a sustainable stone-curlew population in the UK.

The study is part of the PhD research of Rob Hawkes, RSPB Heathland Officer, and is being supported by the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science, the University of East Anglia, Natural England, the Ground Disturbance project within the wider Heritage Lottery Fund supported Breaking New Ground Landscape Partnership Scheme', and the EU LIFE+ project - 'Securing the future of the stone-curlew in the UK'.

Rob Hawkes: "It's incredibly exciting, not just because we're doing something that hasn't been done before, but because we're learning new things about how the birds behave that just haven't been possible to study before, and this will improve our understanding of what we need to do to help stone-curlews."

And there have already been some surprising results:

"We knew that stone-curlews are mainly nocturnal and forage at night. When they have eggs the adults take it in turns to sit on the nest, which gives the 'off duty' bird the chance to go in search of a meal. Using the GPS tags we have discovered individual birds travelling much further from their nest to find food than had been known previously, suggesting the birds are prepared to travel a substantial distance to reach a favoured feeding site."

Thirty years ago, most of stone curlews' natural breeding habitat - grass-heaths and downs - had been lost, and a high proportion of birds took instead to nesting on farmland, where they were extremely vulnerable to agricultural machinery operations.

Thanks to the intensive efforts of farmers, land managers, gamekeepers and conservation organisations to protect vulnerable nests and create safe nesting plots, the number of stone-curlews breeding in the UK has more than doubled since 1985. However, with many pairs (more than half of those in the Brecks) still nesting in areas of farmland where they are at risk from farming operations, more sustainable solutions are needed to secure the UK stone-curlew population.

Delivering those solutions is the aim of the EU LIFE+ project - 'Securing the future of the stone-curlew in the UK', which is working with partners and stakeholders to create more safe nesting habitat for stone-curlews.

Emily Field, RSPB Project Manager, EU LIFE+ project - 'Securing the future of the stone-curlew in the UK': "By working together to a common end conservationists and land-owners and managers have been able to turn things around for stone-curlews, showing just how much people care about wildlife and value their natural heritage.

"Now we are looking to landscape-scale management to secure stone-curlews' future in the UK by providing them with enough safe habitat to nest on that intervention to protect nests is no longer necessary. The number of birds nesting on these safe habitats has steadily increased during the project.

"This ground-breaking GPS tracking study represents a significant step on the path to achieving that ultimate goal - a truly sustainable UK stone-curlew population in the UK."

Robert Gough has farmed in the Breckland region of East Anglia - one of the stone-curlew's UK strongholds - all his life: "Like lots of farmers in the Brecks, we've been working with the RSPB and others for many years to help stone-curlews nesting on our farm, and it has been very gratifying to see the positive impact these efforts have had on their numbers.

"This year we've had 5 pairs of stone-curlews on the 7 specially created nesting plots we have on the farm as part of our agri-environment agreement. Because the nests were on safe plots and not in amongst crops we didn't need to intervene or interrupt farming operations to avoid damaging them.

"The more we can encourage the birds to nest where they are safe the better - for them and for us - and that means creating safe places for them, on farmland and elsewhere."

1. The stone-curlew is a migratory bird and summer visitor to the UK. It spends the winter in Mediterranean North Africa and Southern Spain. In the UK it only breeds in The Brecks, North-West Norfolk and on the Suffolk Coast in East Anglia, and in Wessex in the South of England.

Numbers of stone-curlews breeding in the UK fell by more than 85 per cent between 1940 and 1985, largely due to loss of their breeding habitat: dry grass heath and downland. By the late 1980s, the UK's population of stone-curlews had hit an historic low of around 160 pairs, with nearly 100 of those in the Brecks.

Stone-curlews have Amber status on the UK Red List for birds, Birds of Conservation Concern 4.

2. In 2012 approximately 70 per cent of stone curlews in the Brecks nested within crops. Between 2012 and 2015, the number of pairs nesting within crops decreased from 114 to 80, and the number of pairs using safe habitats increased from 52 to 56.

Brecks 1st choice nest sites:







Within crops







On safe habitats (plots or semi-natural grassland)







No. Of Pairs per habitat in Brecks (1st brood nest sites)







1. Semi-natural Habitat







2. Plot on Semi-natural







3. Plot on Cropped land







4. Unsafe Habitat







3. Stone-curlew populations depend on European protection and research funded by EU money. Stone-curlews are listed on Annex 1 of the EU Birds Directive as a species requiring "special conservation measures". They are also a priority species on the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. Stone-curlews are protected by three internationally important Special Protection Areas which are also Sites of Special Scientific Interest and include the Brecks farmland.

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 habitat.

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. How the GPS tags work

Each GPS tracking device weighs no more than 6 grams - less than 1.5 per cent of the bird's weight - and is attached to the bird's back. It then falls off when the bird moults, replacing its feathers, at the end of the breeding season.

Powered by a tiny battery charged by a solar panel, the devices use GPS satellites orbiting the earth to triangulate their location to within 10 - 20 meters. In ideal conditions they will record their position every 60 minutes.

To get these data off the tag and onto a computer so they can be processed, Rob Hawkes and his team regularly deploy a mobile receiver, known as a base station, within 100 - 150 meters of each tagged bird to wirelessly download the GPS coordinates. Stone-curlews are extremely shy birds, so this job must be done carefully to avoid disturbing them.

Once downloaded, the data can be used to generate a map of the tagged bird's movements, which shows how where it has be spending time foraging, and how far it is traveling from its nest on each trip, allowing scientists to calculate which habitats are most important to the species at different stages in the breeding season.

5. The Breaking New Ground Landscape Partnership is delivering a £2.2M scheme with a series of new and exciting landscape and heritage conservation projects for the Brecks, thanks to a £1.5M grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The partnership is made up of regional, national and local organisations with an interest in the area, community groups and members of the community.

The funding comprises just under £1.5million for delivery of the project with the remainder contributed by the partner organisations and volunteer input. For more information visit:

6. About the Heritage Lottery Fund

HLF's Landscape Partnerships are helping bring together members of the community as well as local, regional, and national organisations to deliver schemes which benefit some of the UK's most outstanding landscapes and rural communities. Since 2003, HLF has committed grant-aid totaling £143m to 88 Landscape Partnership schemes across the UK

Landscape Partnership schemes put heritage conservation at the heart of rural and peri-urban regeneration. Local, regional and national organisations work together to make a real difference to landscapes and communities for the long term. They do this by conserving habitats at landscape-scale, promoting joined-up management, reviving long-lost skills, and much more. HLF-funded projects make a major contribution to work in the UK on implementing the European Landscape Convention.

Thanks to National Lottery players, we invest money to help people across the UK explore, enjoy and protect the heritage they care about - from the archaeology under our feet to the historic parks and buildings we love, from precious memories and collections to rare wildlife. @heritagelottery @HLFEofE

7. Natural England is the government's adviser for the natural environment in England, helping to protect England's nature and landscapes for people to enjoy and for the services they provide.

Last Updated: Tuesday 28 August 2018

Tagged with: Country: England Topic: Conservation Topic: Habitat conservation Topic: Science Topic: Species conservation