Army land provides safe haven for stone curlew

Heritage of the wild
Click to follow
The stone curlew is a strange bird. It is a long-legged wader which cannot stand the wet and hunts insects and earthworms at night with its large yellow eyes, writes Nicholas Schoon.

It is also one of Britain's most endangered species; its breeding population has fallen by 85 per cent in the past 50 years and only 166 pairs are known to have bred here last year. The global population runs into tens of thousands but the bird is in decline across Europe, and we have adopted it as our emblem, to represent all the threatened wildlife covered in this series.

A distant relative of the more common curlew, the stone curlew arrives here in April from its winter homes in north Africa and Spain. Almost all the British birds are found on or around Ministry of Defence training grounds on Salisbury Plain, or on the Breckland, a big sandy area of heath which straddles the Norfolk Suffolk border.

Ground nesting in open country makes the parents, eggs and chicks highly vulnerable to foxes but the jackdaw-sized bird has an effective streaky brown camouflage and a habit of keeping very still.

Changes in farming are thought to be the main causes of the species' decline. Most of the pastures where it once fed and nested have been converted to arable fields. Most stone curlews now nest between rows of spring- sown crops such as sugar beet and barley, and face extreme danger from tractors. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and English Nature have stone-curlew watchers who place warning markers near dozens of nest sites. Farmers are compensated for keeping away.

The stone curlew is one of 116 endangered or declining species for which rescue plans have been proposed by a steering group of Government scientists, academics, and wildlife organisations.

The aim, at a cost of pounds 105,000 a year, is to double the number of breeding pairs in Britain by 2010. This can be done by giving farmers better incentives to manage land in a way which favours the stone curlew and by asking the army to do the same on its training grounds.