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Stone curlew reaches conservation target ahead of schedule – but dangers signs are flickering

27/11/2008 10:06:17

Stone curlew. Chris Gomersall (

November 2008. The latest breeding figures for one of the UK's most threatened birds, the stone-curlew, shows that it has reached a conservation milestone, seven years ahead of target. However, the RSPB and Natural England today are warning that the recovery may be reversed if measures to create suitable habitat for this bird are not implemented quickly.

351 pairs nested
This summer's population count revealed that 351 pairs nested, which means that the stone-curlew has met its 2015 Biodiversity Action Plan target of 350 pairs, well ahead of time. It is one of the few species of bird achieving this level of success. This crow-sized wading bird has its strongholds in the Brecklands of East Anglia, and Wessex, centred on Salisbury Plain.

Warning signs - Fledging rate dropped dramatically
But the survey also revealed a dramatic drop in the number of young birds being fledged. This year, on average every 100 pairs between them only fledged 49 chicks, making this the lowest level of success since at least 1988. The UK's stone-curlew population this year only fledged 172 young, compared to 238 in 2007 - an average year.

Stone curlew adult near nest and eggs, Breckland, Norfolk. Chris Gomersall (

Stone curlew adult near nest and eggs, Breckland, Norfolk. Chris Gomersall (

Wet weather and scrapping of set-aside
The stone-curlew likes open ground, and it is believed that the combination of a wet spring and summer, prompting grass growth and making it hard for the birds to find insects on bare ground, and the scrapping of set-aside, where farmland is left un-cropped, had a significant impact on this year's breeding success.

The RSPB's Robin Wynde has been monitoring the fortunes UK's stone-curlew population for over a decade. Commenting on this year's figures, he said: "Whilst it is great to see the population going up again we are concerned at how few stone-curlew chicks were produced this year. We fear that numbers could drop over the next couple of years because there were too few young produced to replace natural mortality. Stone-curlews used to nest on fallow land or on bare patches within crops. This year there was very little open ground, particularly in the latter part of the summer, and it was a short breeding season as a result."

Gareth Morgan is the RSPB's head of agricultural policy. He said: "When the European Commission axed set-aside, Hilary Benn did a fantastic job in securing compensatory measures. The challenge now is to seize these opportunities for the benefit of the stone-curlew and other threatened farmland species."

The rise of the stone-curlew population is one of the major successes of the Natural England/RSPB Action for Birds in England project which has worked so positively with farmers.

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