12/08/2003
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Stone Curlew Conservation and Salisbury Plain

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Stone Curlew: (Photo: Jerry O’Brien)

There are not many species of bird to be found in Britain that evoke the same degree of fascination and mysticism as the Stone Curlew (Burhinus Oedicnemus). Its scarcity, camouflage and crepuscular habits make it a troublesome bird to observe. Recently, the RSPB, in conjunction with Defence Estates (for the MoD), Hampshire County Council and English Nature, organised an evening that would give enthusiastic birders a rare opportunity to view these elusive birds at close quarters in their natural environment, on Salisbury Plain.

The evening was part of a weeklong series of organised events at the Martin Down NNR, known as the ‘Up on the Downs Wildlife Week’ that was arranged by the RSPB Wessex Team, headed by Tracé Williams and Emma Foulger. The purpose of these events was to introduce people to the flora and fauna that makes chalk downland such a rare and valuable habitat. A whole host of events were run, ranging from guided bird walks, butterfly talks and moth trapping, but perhaps the highlight for many was the Stone Curlew Experience.

Stone Curlews are summer migrants, spending the winter months in Southern Europe and Africa. Like so many of Britain’s farmland and downland birds, Stone Curlews suffered dramatic population crashes during the twentieth century, a total drop of 85% in fact over just 50 years, and more than a 50% drop since 1960.

As a rule, Stone Curlews breed exclusively on habitats with free draining stony soils, good all round visibility and bare or short vegetation. A number of factors have caused this reduction in Stone Curlew numbers, particularly changes in farming such as increased mechanisation, loss of mixed arable/ livestock systems, and moves from spring-sown to autumn-sown crops. By the time the Stone Curlews migrate back to their breeding grounds in the United Kingdom, the autumn sown crops are already too dense and tall for the Stone Curlews to use them as suitable sites for laying and hatching eggs.

There are two distinct populations of Stone Curlew in Britian, East Anglia and Wessex – notably Wiltshire and North Hampshire. Of these, Salisbury Plain and Porton Down are particular strongholds. These areas are extremely important because they are relatively untouched by modern farming practises and remain the only area of level chalk grassland to have survived in the whole of Northwest Europe, the rest going under the plough. The RSPB set up the Stone Curlew recovery project in 1980s. This has been part-funded by EN since 1995. The RSPB Stone Curlew project, run by Mike Austin, monitors nests, rings chicks and keeps a watchful eye on breeding sites throughout the season. It has worked successfully in partnership with farmers to double the population over the last 10 years.

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Stone Curlew: (Photo: Phil Briggs)

Salisbury Plain is approximately 777 square kilometres, roughly the size of the Isle of Wight and contains about 10% (plus Porton Down approx 20%) of the British population of Stone Curlews - Wessex as a whole having in the region of 80 pairs. The Salisbury Plain LIFE Project was set up to restore/ enhance the habitats. It is focussing on chalk grassland, juniper, Marsh Fritillary and Stone Curlew. This has enabled the RSPB to employ a Project Officer, Phil Sheldrake, who works with farmers in the area around the Plain and Porton Down. The LIFE Project is a major four-year conservation project centred on the Plain. The European Commission LIFE nature fund has contributed 50% of the total Project’s cost’s of £2,130,000, spread over four years, finishing in September 2005. The other 50% is matched funding provided by Headquarters Army Training Estate, English Nature, Defence Science Technology Laboratory, RSPB, Butterfly Conservation and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

Since its inception, the LIFE project has cleared over 80ha of scrub, 40ha of mixed woodland, 40ha of coniferous woodland and restored grazing to 1052ha of the plain, all to the benefit of chalk grassland and Stone Curlews. Most importantly, through the use of Countryside Stewardships, Stone Curlew nesting plots have been created, particularly around the arable fringes, with over £40,000 a year going to farmers for this use. These plots are areas of bare ground that are left for the Stone Curlew to use as nest sites, and are typically in the middle of arable or grass fields.

The action being taken does seem to be having a positive effect on the Stone Curlew population with their numbers increasing steadily over the last decade, to the point where they seem to be reaching the target set for 2010 of 300 pairs nationally.

One problem though has been the re-establishment of pairs on semi-natural habitats and the restoration of their range. Currently most pairs are on specialised Stone Curlew plots and are closely watched and monitored. If necessary the chicks are picked up during farming operations and sites are kept secret due to the persistent problem of egg collecting. What the recovery project aims to achieve is to have a secure and increasing Stone Curlew population without direct nest and chick protection on arable land, and a return to their more natural environment of dry grassland and heathland.

The population of Stone Curlews on Salisbury Plain certainly seems to be doing well as a result of the project, and a small group of 15 or so individuals were lucky enough to spend the evening watching a pair and two chicks on a Stone Curlew plot in the heart of Salisbury Plain on the Stone Curlew Experience evening. If the projects success continues at its current rate, Stone Curlews should be able to use Salisbury Plain as solid base to spread from into surrounding grasslands and farmland. Let us hope that the Stone Curlew can begin to spread, and re-colonise its former range, and become a more familiar site in our countryside.

Stone Curlew: (Photo: Mark Breaks)

Written by: Steve Portugal