Last week, the first stone-curlew of the year was seen at Winterbourne Downs in Wiltshire. This bird, which probably spent the winter in southern Spain or north Africa, returned to a British landscape which, over the past four years, has been much improved for stone-curlews thanks to a collaboration between the RSPB, Natural England and local farmers.
Securing the stone-curlew, funded by EU LIFE+, began in 2013 with the aim of making the UK’s population of stone-curlews self-sustaining, and replace labour-intensive conservation methods previously employed after the species became at risk from extinction.
There’s something primeval about the stone-curlew: those long, reptilian legs, that unwavering, yellow stare. They also command a brilliant array of nicknames, from ‘goggle-eyed plover’ to the less catchy ‘bull-nosed swollen-knee’.
The UK population came under threat in the 20th century, falling as low as just 168 pairs in 1991 due to changes in land use. And further back, they would be caught and hired out to people suffering from jaundice, who believed looking into a stone-curlew’s yellow eye would cure them.
Homes for stone-curlews
Stone-curlews like to nest on farmland, on stony ground, and rely on camouflage – which is a great tactic for hiding from predators, but not a lot of use against an approaching tractor. But, by creating fallow plots in their fields, farmers and stone-curlews can co-exist harmoniously.
Nearly 300 of these nest sites are now created by farmers each year, with support from stewardship schemes, and over 3,000 hectares of grassland habitat – the size of a small city – is now being restored to create the right conditions for stone-curlews. With that, 144 more chicks fledged in 2015-16 compared to 2012-13 – all excellent news.
With these measures now in place, and with continued support from government schemes, we hope the UK’s stone-curlew population will become self-sustaining within five years.
Hopefully the Winterbourne bird, and any young it may have, will be one of many to benefit from the success of this fantastic collaboration between farmers and conservationists.
Find out more about visiting Winterbourne Downs, with its beautiful meadows and farmland wildlife.