Rescue of threatened stone-curlew celebrated

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) said numbers of breeding stone-curlews in England - they are not found anywhere else in the UK - have risen to more than 300 pairs, hitting a national conservation target five years ahead of schedule.

The species had suffered one of the most spectacular declines of any British breeding bird since the Second World War. But while the bird continues to decline elsewhere in Europe, farmers and landowners, including the Ministry of Defence, have been crucial in reversing the stone-curlew's demise in this country, conservationists said.

The two main populations of the bird are on and around Salisbury Plain and in the Brecklands, which straddle the Norfolk-Suffolk border. Now the challenge is to return the stone-curlew to areas it has not inhabited for more than 30 years.

Robin Wynde, RSPB biodiversity policy officer, said: "This has been a great success story. There is no doubt that without conservation work the stone-curlew may no longer have been a UK breeding bird by now. It has come back from the brink."

The stone-curlew is about the length of a crow but slimmer, more elegant, and with much longer wings. Its most striking characteristics are its long yellow legs and powerful large yellow eyes, which enable it to feed on insects at night. In England, it inhabits dry, sparsely vegetated, open ground, but on the Continent the bird also nests on sandy islands where rivers have divided. Spain is the bird's European stronghold.

Stone-curlews used to number more than 1,000 breeding pairs in England before habitats were lost to arable farming and forestry after the Second World War.

Numbers had dropped to about 160 breeding pairs in 1985 but have now reached 103 pairs, mostly in the Salisbury Plain and Porton Down areas, and 187 in the Brecklands. There are smaller populations in north Norfolk and east Suffolk, taking the total to more than 300. A government-backed biodiversity action plan, set in 1995, included a population target of 300 pairs by 2010. A new target will be adopted next year.