STONE CURLEW numbers have nearly doubled over the past 20 years thanks to a conservation programme involving farmers, landowners and environmental groups.

Numbers of breeding pairs increased from 160 to 300 over the past 20 years, hitting a government-backed Biodiversity Action Plan target fives years ahead of schedule, according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

“There is no doubt that without conservation work the stone curlew may no longer have been a UK breeding bird by now,” commented RSPB’s Robin Wynde. “It has come back from the brink.”

The migratory bird visits England from late March or April until October and lays its eggs in a shallow scrape or hollow in the ground. There are now two main populations in England – around Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire and in the Brecklands on Norfolk/Suffolk border.

Wiltshire farmer James Bament was one of 150 farmers involved in the project and said it takes very little extra cost or effort to help the recovery of this species.

Three stone-curlew chicks have fledged in two years on his farm, after he created a five acre plot in an area of grass set-aside. Project funding also allows fieldworkers to work with farmers to safeguard eggs and chicks during routine farming work.

“It’s good to see something be so successful because of something you have done,” he said.

Now the BAP target of 300 pairs by 2010 has been reached, a new target will be set next year. Parts of Cambridgeshire, the Chilterns and Sussex’s South Downs are key areas the RSPB wants to help the species re-colonise.