How watching your step can help rare breeding birds as we return to the countryside

Sara Humphrey

Thursday 25 March 2021

How watching your step can help rare breeding birds as we return to the countryside

  • Over half of England’s most threatened breeding birds nest on or near the ground.
  • The pandemic is making the public more aware of nature in their local area. Four out of every 10 people asked, said they’ve spotted wildlife they have never noticed before near their homes over the last 12 months.
  • As we return to the countryside around the UK, watching your step can help protect breeding birds and other wildlife.

People have been noticing nature much more during lockdown, as garden birds and other wildlife have helped lift spirits and connect us to the world outside. A recent YouGov survey, commissioned by the RSPB, showed that 41% of participants reported seeing wildlife near their homes that they had never noticed before over the last 12 months.

Almost half of the UK population (44%) have said they have tried to attract nature to their gardens during lockdown but as restrictions ease, the RSPB is keen to highlight that many of our threatened species don’t use gardens and nest boxes when raising young.

Over half of England’s most threatened breeding bird species nest on, or near to the ground; including curlew, little tern, nightjar and lapwing.

 “If you ask people where bird’s nest, they are likely say a tree, hedge or nest box. It’s an image we’ve all grown up with but for some of our most threatened species it’s simply not true. Almost every natural habitat in the English countryside can be home to ground nesting birds and many of these species are under increasing pressure due habitat loss, predators and climate change. Yet we can all help protect them from disturbance by simply following The Countryside Code and keeping to footpaths.” Sara Humphrey, Communications Manager

Rare birds like woodlark and nightjar nest on heathland sites, which are often popular places to walk, cycle, horseride and picnic. By keeping yourself and your animals to the footpaths, you can help to keep chicks safe. Fire risk can also be very high on heathlands, so pack a picnic rather than a BBQ and take any litter home.  

Wetlands and estuary areas are vital for wading species including lapwing and redshank. Coastal areas can be home to beach-nesting birds; Sandwich tern, ringed plover and oystercatcher make homes near the tide's edge or on off-shore islands.

Watching for nesting bird signage, keeping dogs on leads and backing away if you hear any parents alarm calling can help give these rare birds space to breed.

If you're keen to get back to watersports at this time of year, please watch out for warning signage around the water’s edge, make sure you give sensitive breeding colonies a wide berth and back away if you hear alarm calls.

Birds nesting on the ground are at higher risk from predators, which is why the nests and eggs they contain are often extremely well camouflaged. This makes them very hard to see and avoid.

“A skylark egg can be as small as 17mm across, that’s around the width of a 5p piece. When those eggs hatch, the vulnerable chicks can be just as well camouflaged. If disturbed, a chick’s instinct is often to stay quiet and avoid detection, so if you hear an adult bird calling out in distress or see one trying to catch your attention, back away carefully to help protect nests from harm.” Mike Shurmer, Head of Species for RSPB England.

The RSPB’s conservation scientists have developed methods to help protect nesting birds from environmental threats including climate change, wildfire and sea level rise, which can be delivered through managing landscapes for wildlife. They have seen fantastic results for species including roseate tern and stone curlew; but to protect ground nesting birds across the countryside, everyone can play a part by watching where they step, keeping dogs on leads and following The Countryside Code.

The RSPB works closely with partners and communities to protect wildlife across their network of over 200+ UK nature reserves and in the wider countryside. To find out more about RSPB reserves and projects near you, or to help fund the vital work the charity does to protect wildlife, visit





Editors notes:

Interviews: We have a number of conservation projects running across the country which are aimed at protecting habitat for these ground nesting birds. If you would like to interview someone regarding this press release, please do let us know and we will try to arrange an interview with the project team most relevant to your county. Please contact us via

Images: We can supply county text and images based on the most at-risk habitats in your local area of England. Please contact us at

1.     Over half of the birds breeding in England and listed on the UK Birds of Conservation Concern 4 red list, nest on or near the ground. Of 67 red listed species, 46 regularly breed in England and over half of these regularly nest on or near the ground. Details of species below: 

Ringed plover, grasshopper warbler, twite, curlew, black-tailed godwit, tree pipit, yellowhammer (near the ground) corn bunting, black grouse, puffin (in burrows) hen harrier, cuckoo (when eggs laid in meadow pipit nest) skylark, woodcock, song thrush, wood warbler, grey partridge, roseate tern, nightingale (near the ground in shrubs) little tern, whinchat, yellow wagtail, ruff, merlin, ring ouzel, lapwing, stone curlew, herring gull (when not in urban environments) grey wagtail.

2.     YouGov survey results  

Total sample size was 2071 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 13th - 14th January 2021.  The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all UK adults (aged 18+)

Ref 1: I have seen wildlife in my local area that I hadn't noticed before

Net agree: UK 41% England 41% Wales 35% Scotland 42% NI 38% 

Ref 2: I have done something to help and attract wildlife in my local area (e.g. putting out food and water, making changes to my garden, etc.) 

Net agree: UK 44% England 44% Wales 44% Scotland 42% NI 49%

3.     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.

4.     The full Countryside Code is available online here -

Last Updated: Monday 29 March 2021

Tagged with: Country: England Country: UK Topic: Birds Topic: Campaigns Topic: Conservation Topic: Get involved Topic: Giving nature a home where you live Topic: Reserves Topic: Wildlife Topic: Summer Topic: Spring Topic: Campaigns Topic: Climate change Topic: Conservation Topic: Getting involved Topic: Green issues Topic: Habitat conservation Topic: People Topic: Reserves Topic: Science Topic: Site conservation