12 June 1998

MAKING A RARE BIRD RATHER LESS RARE

Numbers of rare stone curlews are on the up and up, thanks

to set-aside and individual farmers efforts. John Burns

reports on the success of the Wessex stone curlew project

THE stone curlew, one of Britains rarest breeding birds, is found only in dry habitats such as chalk downland, mixed farms on chalk, and the Breckland heathlands. After wintering in Spain and north Africa it arrives in Britain in mid to late March, returning to the same nest site each year, though not necessarily nesting there. They can rear two broods a year if suitable sites are available. Each brood is a maximum of two chicks. They leave for their winter quarters in late October.

According to Richard Winspear, full-time project officer for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds Wessex stone curlew project, stone curlews are very choosy about nesting sites and are apt to abandon them if disturbed. For that reason the exact locations of breeding pairs and nests are not made public.

They nest on bare, stony ground or in short, sparse vegetation such as set-aside, or low input spring crops. Good sites are near close grazed grassland, or outdoor pig units where the birds can feed on worms and beetles. Above all, the site chosen will have good all-round vision for a considerable distance. Mr Winspear finds that if the vegetation does grow up the birds will just fly off.

Carrion crows may take stone curlew eggs if the sitting bird leaves the nest after being disturbed.

Precarious existence

Tim Culley, recently retired farm manager on a Berkshire estate, has 10 years experience of encouraging stone curlews. "We first found them on a farm we took in hand when a tenant retired about 10 years ago. We looked in the bird books and realised they were rare, so we tried to encourage them. They nested on game cover strips, or patchy spring crops and had a rather precarious existence looked after by one of the staff, who soon developed an unerring eye for a nest 100yds from his tractor seat. Then along came Richard and set-aside and weve worked together since then."

Set-aside was a breakthrough for the stone curlew, says Mr Culley. After initial problems getting permission to carry out operations for the benefit of the stone curlews, MAFF staff had proved most helpful once they understood the significance of what was wanted, said Mr Culley. He accepts that the extra work to make set-aside attractive to stone curlews is a cost to the farm and there is no direct financial return. "But farmers have always done that sort of thing for all sorts of reasons."

Extra work

The extra work amounts to ploughing before Christmas and cultivating in February/March (because ploughed ground is too rough for nesting on), and an appropriate summer operation to reduce the vegetation cover in preparation for the second brood.

It is now possible to designate 2ha (4.9-acre) plots of set-aside as stone curlew patches and get permission for the necessary extra operations without delay. That means prompt arrangements can be made when new nesting sites are discovered. The RSPB has also been encouraging farmers within 2km (1.2 miles) of a breeding pair to consider creating a 2ha (4.9-acre) stone curlew plot on set-aside land in the hope of further increasing the population of that bird.

Because of the uncertain future of set-aside after the next round of CAP reform negotiations, the RSPB has encouraged MAFF to offer a special stone curlew option in the Countryside Stewardship Scheme. It has already proved popular in this its trial first year.

In 1997 the RSPB recorded 192 breeding pairs of stone curlews in the whole of Britain, putting them well on the way to reaching the 200 pairs set as the target for the year 2000. Sixty-three of the 192 pairs were recorded in the Wessex stone curlew project area (parts of Wiltshire, Hampshire, Oxfordshire and Berkshire). The rest were in the Brecklands of East Anglia.

In the early days the stone curlew projects priority was to prevent further decline in the population and from 1985 to 1995 it did stabilise at about 160 breeding pairs. But since set-aside has been available the population has grown and the millennium target of 200 pairs looks distinctly attainable, says Mr Winspear. He is keen to record the RSPBs gratitude for the enthusiasm shown by farmers who still have the birds on their farms and also those neighbours who are keen to get them back.

Right: Richard Winspear, RSPB, and retired farm manager Tim Culley check on potential nesting ground on the farm.

Below: Stone curlews nest on bare, stony ground or in short, sparse vegetation.

The stone curlew: A distinctive sandy-brown bird about the size of a crow, with long yellow legs and yellow on the beak and eyes. In flight the black and white bars on the wings are obvious. Wild, curlew-like calls are made mainly in the evenings and at night when it is at its most active.

The birds and their nests are well camouflaged and difficult to spot. They eat mainly earthworms and beetles. Outdoor pig units and manure heaps have proved popular feeding grounds for them, along with short grazed grassland and hedge bases. Set-aside gave them a big boost.