• Categories: Stone-curlew,
    • The stone-curlew is a summer visitor to England, breeding on downland, heathland and arable farmland.  The UK population is estimated at approximately 350 pairs, and confined to two core areas, Wessex in Southern England, and the Brecklands in East Anglia.

      In the early part of the 20th Century, an estimated population of 60 pairs bred on the chalk soils of the South Downs.  This population slowly fell, with the last confirmed breeding attempt in Sussex recorded in 1981.  However, in recent years they have started to make a comeback!

      In 2006, a pair was discovered breeding on the Downs, and since then 12 more nesting attempts have been made.  A maximum of two pairs have been found in any one year, and it is thought that breeding attempts in successive years are by birds returning to the same sites.  A total of 13 chicks have been fledged, which bodes well for any future population.

      Stone-curlews rely on their camofluage to avoid detection
      Stone-curlews rely on their camofluage to avoid detection - there are a pair of birds on this fallow plot!

      As with many farmland birds, farmers hold the key to the stone-curlews successful recolonisation.  They are attracted to bare or disturbed ground in open areas, and can often attempt to nest in spring cereals, maize or game mixture plots.  These areas provide great habitats when the birds arrive in April, but can grow too tall during their nesting cycle, which lasts around 3.5 weeks.  In some cases, this can even lead to nest abandonment.

      In the case of some recent nesting attempts, farmers have even sprayed out small areas of crops once nests have been identified.  Although unsustainable in the long term, this has led to good success in this early stage of recolonisation.  This is only remedial action, with long term habitat management the real key.  Agri-environment options such as fallow plots for ground nesting birds and extended overwinter stubbles provide a more sustainable option.  These habitats also encourage a number of other farmland birds such as lapwing and skylark as well as rare arable plants and brown hares, so they are a real win-win.

      Fallow plots provide an ideal undisturbed nesting habitat for stone-curlews
      Fallow plots provide an ideal undisturbed nesting habitat for stone-curlews

      To aid this work, a South Downs Stone-Curlew Project was set up in 2008, involving staff from the RSPB and a small team of trained and licensed volunteers (stone-curlews are afforded legal protection under Annex 1 of the EU Birds Directive).  As well as finding nests and working with farmers and landowners to protect them, the team have also been ringing chicks.  This has showed some interest results, including one fledged chick returning to the same area to breed for two years in a row, and other fledged chicks joining the populations in Wessex and The Brecks.

      A stone-curlew chick safely returned after being ringed.  Colour ring combinations help to re-identify birds in future years and track their movements
      A stone-curlew chick safely returned after being ringed.  Colour ring combinations help to re-identify birds in future years and track their movements

      The recolonisation of stone-curlews on the South Downs is still at a very early stage, and overall increases will require a high level of nesting success and for fledged chicks to return.  If you see any stone-curlews on the Downs, or even have them on your farm, the South Downs Stone-Curlew Project team would be interested to hear from you.  Having stone-curlews on your land does not mean that you have to do anything, although they are a target species within agri-environment schemes and can help to build a competitive agreement.

      If you would like to report a sighting, or discuss options for management on your land, please call Bruce Fowkes on 07702 779365 or email bruce.fowkes@rspb.org.uk.