Wessex stone-curlew project

Stone-curlew populations are bouncing back after suffering massive declines since the 1930s.

 The RSPB Wessex Stone-curlew Project. Wiltshire, England. June 2008. Stone-curlew Burhinus oedicnemus, chick hiding in vegetation, on the edge of a "Stone-curlew plot" created on farmland.

Overview

These elusive birds traditionally bred on tightly grazed grassland and foraged for invertebrates in permanent pasture, but much of this suitable grassland habitat has now given way to agriculture. As a result, more pairs are nesting in cultivated fields, and due to the excellent camouflage of the eggs and chicks they are vulnerable to farming practices. This, along with other issues such as being highly susceptible to human disturbance, has seen stone-curlew populations plummet since the 1930s.
 
Luckily, the population has persisted on Salisbury Plain, due to the military training area retaining much of the grassland habitat which stone-curlews love. 
 
Much of the surrounding Wessex landscape was also historically part of the species’ range and still contains potentially suitable habitat for stone-curlews. By working with farmers and landowners in these areas, through creating and managing suitable habitat in order to give the birds the best chance of breeding successfully without disturbance, the population is now spreading and numbers of stone-curlew are increasing.

Objectives

  • The aim of the project is to produce a self-sustaining population of stone-curlews in Wessex.
  • This will be achieved by facilitating the provision of suitable habitat, providing informed habitat management advice, and by species protection, including intervention where necessary to improve chick survival
  • The project helps farmers to provide suitable habitat through agri-environment schemes. If you are a farmer or land manager in the Wessex area and want to know what you can do to help the stone-curlew, contact us for free advice.

 

Progress

  • 1930s - UK stone-curlew population begins to decline
  • 1980s - population hits an all time low of less than 170 pairs, with as few as 30 pairs in Wessex
  • 1982 - RSPB stone-curlew project officer employed
  • 1985 - RSPB employs field teams to carry out nest protection
  • 1988 - Set aside introduced and used to provide suitable breeding areas
  • 1992 - Stone-curlew listed on UK Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) as a priority species, with set targets for recovery
  • 1995 - RSPB and English Nature (now Natural England) join forces to begin a 'Species Recovery Project'
  • 1998 - habitat creation funded by Countryside Stewardship Scheme (CSS)
  • 2000 - UK population of 254 pairs exceeds target set by UK BAP for 200 pairs
  • 2004 - RSPB sign a management agreement at Normanton Down within the Stonehenge World Heritage Site, a half a square kilometre site with suitable habitat managed for stone-curlew
  • 2005 - UK population of 308 pairs exceeds the UK BAP target for 2010 of 300 pairs.
  • 2005 - RSPB purchase Manor Farm, a 300 ha farm with suitable habitat for stone-curlews
  • 2006 - Higher Level Stewardship replaces CSS management options for stone-curlew
  • 2006 - RSPB sign management agreement at Suddern Hill, a half a square kilometre site with suitable habitats managed for stone-curlews
  • 2007 - SITA Trust funding begins, allowing work outside core areas to concentrate on range expansion
  • 2008 - Set aside scrapped
  • 2008 - UK population of 350 pairs meets UK BAP target for 2015.
  • 2010 - Biffa Award funding begins, which works towards supporting landowners to continue land management with reduced RSPB involvement
  • 2012 - Work becomes part of a UK wide LIFE+ funded project, which aims to build on the work already done towards developing a sustainable populations across the UK
  • 2014 - Final HLS agreements
  • 2016 - New agri-environmental schemes come into effect, now once again called Countryside Stewardship Scheme

 

Planned Work

The RSPB have worked with individual farmers, as well as partner organisations such as the MoD, Natural England, the National Trust and the Wildlife Trusts to create more suitable habitat for stone-curlews, both on military grasslands and in the farmed landscape. Over the last twenty years, conservation efforts between these partners have encouraged the population to spread into the surrounding farmland, and numbers have increased.
 
The introduction of set-aside allowed fallow areas within fields which were sometimes suitable as nesting areas, especially if the area could be sprayed to keep vegetation from becoming too thick. Since the withdrawal of set-aside, the work has largely involved creating nesting plots which are managed specifically for stone-curlews. These plots are available under the Environmental Stewardship schemes, which compensate farmers to manage an area within a field that will encourage nesting stone-curlews safely away from agricultural operations.  
 
These areas are monitored by RSPB project staff which not only shows population and productivity trends in Wessex, but allows advice to be given so that suitable nesting conditions can be maintained throughout the season. As a result, the farmer can carry out management without disturbing nesting birds.
 
Although the stone-curlew population is now recovering, this work will continue as the success is largely dependent on human intervention. As the work develops, more sustainable management techniques will be instigated to see whether the population can become self-sufficient. 
 
The project also works closely with Natural England to identify key farms for Environmental Stewardship. The farmers can access grant payments for managing habitat on their land, and can include other management options which benefit a range of farmland wildlife, especially the six priority arable bird species – lapwing, corn bunting, turtle dove, tree sparrow, yellow wagtail and grey partridge. There are over a hundred farms currently in a stewardship scheme that are managing plots for stone-curlew.
 
Plots are the main mechanism available to deliver a sustainable population of stone-curlew in Wessex, and we are always looking for ways to make plot management more effective for the birds and more straightforward for those managing the land. Research to date has been used to produce management guidelines, but we continued our studies in 2015 with a plot management trial. 2016 will see the continuation of these plot management trials to enable the procurement of robust data.

These trials will test different management techniques designed to encourage nesting without the need for intensive monitoring. We hope these results will allow us to produce improved guidelines for plot management which will be used to advise Natural England on creating the new agri-environment schemes that will come into effect in 2016.
 
The RSPB vision is for partnership working on a landscape scale, incorporating the stone-curlew project and a whole range of other programmes. This could be encapsulated by the Wiltshire Chalk Country programme, which pulls together a number of different organisations for the restoration of the downland heritage of the chalk country across Wessex.

Results

The number of breeding pairs in Wessex has been steadily increasing over a number of years, with some pairs returning to breed in historical areas. However after harsh weather conditions in 2013 the stone-curlew population saw a significant decline, with only 94 breeding pairs and 28 fledglings in Wessex. As a result expectations were not high for a population increase in 2014. 
 
However, conditions were much better and in 2014 the Wessex stone-curlew population was estimated at 114 breeding pairs, with 84 fledged chicks and the highest productivity recorded since 2006. 2015 saw yet another great season for stone-curlew with 130 breeding pairs, which resulted in 91 chicks fledged across the Wessex range.
 
The UK Biodiversity Action Plan for stone-curlew targets a national population of 350 pairs by 2015; however this figure was reached back in 2008. 
 
Due to recent declines the national population unfortunately dropped to 266 breeding pairs. Nonetheless, in 2014, numbers once again rose to 323 breeding pairs, which bodes well for the future of this special UK population.
 
By working closely with the Ministry of Defence we have been able to ensure that the species’ stronghold on Salisbury Plain continues to provide suitable habitat for stone-curlew. There was a network of more than 230 stone-curlew nesting plots in Wessex in 2014, across a network of farms and private land.

The goodwill and support from farmers and the MoD has been fundamental to the success of the project, and will be vital in creating a self-sustaining population of stone-curlew in the future.
 
The RSPB Wessex reserves, including RSPB owned sites and land management agreements, are also delivering habitat management for stone-curlew. In 2014, these sites supported seven breeding stone-curlew pairs and four fledglings, while also providing an important link between areas of suitable habitat.

Partners

None of this work would be possible without the support of farmers and landowners around Wessex. Their support, through sympathetic management and the provision of suitable habitat, has been responsible for the increase in population seen over the years.
 
Natural England has been a partner throughout the project. They have provided expertise and support to farmers, and also funding through their Action for Birds in England programme and environmental stewardship.
 
The Ministry of Defence have a large Estate on which the majority of the Wessex stone-curlew breed. By working closely together, we have been able to protect these birds without compromising MoD activity on Salisbury Plain.
 
The Wiltshire Chalk Country programme is a shared vision between the RSPB and other organisations including the MoD, the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, the National Trust, Wiltshire Council, Natural England, Wessex Water, Plantlife, Butterfly Conservation and Bumblebee Conservation.

Funding

This work now continues as part of a national EU LIFE+ funded project to secure the future of the stone-curlew in the UK. This has covered a programme of fieldwork over a number of years and aims to support the transition from species conservation dependency to a sustainable population across the UK.
 
Previous funding for the project came from Biffa, through their Main Grants Scheme. This funded a programme of advisory work to empower landowners to continue land management with less intervention from the RSPB.
 
SITA Trust also provided funds for the project, which covered work outside core areas to identify sites where stone-curlew were breeding in vulnerable areas and increase their current range.

Contacts

Coast on a stormy day

Nick Tomalin

Wessex Farmland Project Manager, RSPB

nick.tomalin@rspb.org.uk
Tagged with: Country: England Habitat: Farmland Habitat: Grassland Species: Stone-curlew Project status: Ongoing Project types: Species protection