Farms reap healthy crop of the ugly bird that faced extinction

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Bulging eyes. Knobbly knees. The distinctive stone curlew is one of Britain's most peculiar-looking birds. But now it has a distinction of another sort: it's doing better at recovering its once-falling numbers than any of Britain's much-threatened farmland bird species, having increased its population by more than half in 20 years.

Bulging eyes. Knobbly knees. The distinctive stone curlew is one of Britain's most peculiar-looking birds. But now it has a distinction of another sort: it's doing better at recovering its once-falling numbers than any of Britain's much-threatened farmland bird species, having increased its population by more than half in 20 years.

While skylarks, grey partridges, lapwings and turtle doves have plunged catastrophically over recent decades, a conservation programme for the stone curlew has borne significant fruit - and its success is largely down to co-operation from farmers themselves.

The key has been finding the birds' nests early in the breeding season, then notifying farmers so agricultural operations can take account of them. As a result, numbers have gone from about 170 pairs in Britain in the mid-1980s - the bird's low point - to about 260 pairs today.

It has to be said that Burhinus oedicnemus does not look like a typical inhabitant of the English countryside. It is more like the roadrunner bird from the old cartoons, a scrawny inhabitant of a scrawny landscape, and indeed, its typical Eurasian habitat is bare steppeland.

It is the only European member of the thick-knees, a very distinctive bird family, but its eyes are even more noticeable. As one bird guide puts it: "Prominent yellow and black eye appears to glare malevolently on pale striped head."

Across Europe the bird's numbers are dropping steadily as intensive farming takes away its living room, and this was formerly the case in Britain too.

From between 1,000 and 2,000 pairs scattered across the UK in the 1930s, the stone curlew's range shrank to two widely-separated pockets - the chalk downlands of Wiltshire, and the Brecklands of Norfolk, the sandy, pine-covered terrain near Thetford Forest. There, the bird has come to favour nesting in fields of young crops, and it is there that work by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and English Nature has had the most success. Each spring the RSPB project officer, Tim Cowan, helped by three assistants, combs more than 30,000 acres of farmland between Swaffham in the north and Bury St Edmunds in the south, first looking for the birds, and then looking for their nests. Their locations are then notified to the farmers concerned - and almost universally they are spared from the destruction that ploughing, hoeing or harvesting would otherwise bring.

Comments