Over half of England’s most threatened breeding bird species nest on, or near to the ground; including stone-curlew, lapwing, skylark, and corn bunting. RSPB Communications Officer, Morwenna Alldis, investigates why stone curlews are in trouble, and what the RSPB is doing to help.

Stone-curlews are possibly one of the strangest looking birds in England, with their almost pre-historic appearance they would not be out of place scuttling across a scene in Jurassic Park.

Today stone-curlews are one of the UK’s rarest birds. In the 1930s stone-curlews were widespread throughout England, from Dorset to Yorkshire, with up to 2000 pairs. By 1980 both their numbers and their range had shrunk dramatically, and only 120 pairs remained mainly in Wessex (which covers Wiltshire, Hampshire, Berkshire, and Oxfordshire) and the Norfolk and Suffolk Brecklands. The reason for their rapid decline is not an uncommon one – the loss of their homes due to changes in the way their landscapes were managed.

Two stone-curlews standing in a stony field. Credit: Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

Stone-curlews nest on light, free-draining soils – dry, stony grassland, heathland, and farmland. They search for food within 1 km of the nest site feeding on invertebrates found in short-grazed, semi-natural grassland, or in areas used by livestock, like outdoor pig units.

These secretive birds and their nests are difficult to spot. They prefer to lay their eggs on patches of bare soil amongst scattered stones for camouflage - so that they can keep an eye out for approaching danger. A danger which threatens often because they’re easily disturbed by farming works and people, especially those walking dogs.

Example of the stony ground stone-curlews nest on. Credit: Nick Tomalin

What is the RSPB doing to help stone-curlew populations recover?                                                                                                                       

For the last 30 years The RSPB and Natural England (NE) have stepped in to help. We have worked with landowners, farmers, conservationists, and an incredible team of volunteers in Wessex and the Brecks, to restore the stone-curlews’ homes. Efforts are paying off and the current population stands at 350 pairs. But these special birds still need help, without the hands-on support of conservationists their population would fall by around 4% a year.

With limited suitable downland and heathland sites in the Wiltshire Chalk Country and the Brecks, stone-curlews mostly nest in crop fields – which are prone to a lot of farming disturbance. So, it’s important that the RSPB build strong relationships with local farmers and landowners, to ensure that stone-curlew nests are protected.

Stone curlew nest with eggs. Tractor in background furrowing crops. Credit: Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)

Farmland nest protection is labour-intensive. RSPB fieldworkers and volunteers need to find the nests and then mark the nests or lift the chicks to allow farmers to work the fields without destroying them. Lapwing nests are often found and protected at the same time. Stone-curlews are a schedule 1 protected species so a license is required to be able to handle their eggs or chicks. The whole RSPB fieldwork team is licensed and trained to do this.

To help protect stone-curlews it is essential that we help the population become self-sufficient. So we are creating safer nest sites for the stone-curlew, on semi-natural grasslands, or specific farmland plots. These cultivated plots can be created by farmers through the agri-environment schemes, administered by NE, so that they receive compensation for the work. Across Wessex and the Brecks there are over 500 fallow plots already in place.

The RSPB Wiltshire team have nine dedicated and passionate volunteers who manage their own stone curlew survey areas. They find birds, locate and protect nests, and work with landowners. Our volunteers protect about 25% of the Wessex stone curlew population, without them we wouldn’t be able to proactively monitor or protect these special pairs.

Stone-curlew chick sitting on bare soil. Credit: Nick Tomalin

Of course, the work is intensive and time-consuming, and we need funding to support the team. In Wessex, we are fortunate to have support from Wiltshire Council, who contract the RSPB to undertake monitoring and nest protection for stone-curlew on and around Salisbury Plain. This is to help the Council ensure there is no impact on this sensitive species from any development in the area as part of their commitment to house-building.

How you can help stone-curlews

Between February-September stone-curlews and lapwings could be nesting where you’re walking, relying on camouflage to keep their nests, eggs, and chicks safe – which makes them extremely vulnerable during the most important part of their year.  

Some of these birds, like the lapwings that you may see and hear during your walk, have suffered severe population declines. If we’re not to lose them, then every chick counts.

We want everyone to enjoy the countryside, especially after gruelling lockdowns. But to help protect our threatened species, please stick to the paths, keep dogs on leads, and watch your step.

Stone-curlew adult standing over eggs in nest. Credit: Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)

Many dogs visit this area every day, so ground nesting birds can be disturbed repeatedly - even if a dog is 500m away. When an apparent predator approaches a nest, the adults leave until it’s gone. Even in this brief time, eggs can cool down and chicks will be unprotected. A quick sniff from a dog could cause eggs to fail or small chicks to die – without you even knowing. So please, stay on the path and keep dogs on a lead

We depend on the generosity of our supporters to maintain our vital conservation work. If you are able to make a donation to help us secure the future of vulnerable wild birds like the stone-curlew, please click here.

Thank you for your support - it really does make a difference.

RSPB weighing, measuring, & ringing a stone-curlew chick. Credit: Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)