The stone curlew: a local conservation success story

Stone Curlew image by Steve Round courtesy of the RSPB
Stone Curlew image by Steve Round

(Image of the Stone Curlew courtesy of the RSPB/ Steve Round)

 Earlier this year, the RSPB held an awards and information evening which celebrated 30 years of joint conservation work by Breckland farmers and other organisations. This has helped increase the stone curlew population by conserving the very specific environments required for successful breeding. Attended by Environment Secretary Liz Truss MP – whose constituency includes a large part of the stone curlew’s range – guests enjoyed talks by a variety of experts in conservation alongside the presentation of a lifetime achievement award to local farmer Chris Knight. In this feature, we look at the history of this unique habitat which provides a home to so many species and examine the impact that changes in conservation and farming practices have wrought upon local stone curlew numbers.

The post war years saw the reselling of the countryside back to the baby boomers as a kind of neutered pastoral theme park – a place we go ‘to’ and are consequentially distanced from. Add in the fact that, as Rupert Masefield of the RSPB told me, “There is no wilderness left in Britain- it is all known” and we can see, in part (because I am over simplifying a complex set of circumstances), why we are now in the process of redressing the damage and imbalance this distancing and commodification caused.

The fact that Britain has been mapped and plotted along its entire length and breadth doesn’t rule out us enjoying a sense of wilderness and wildness and the Brecklands provides this in spade loads, being a part of East Anglia largely unknown even to many those of us who live nearby or within it. W.G Sebald talked of a haunted landscape and Breckland is this to a certain extent- these ‘broken lands’ which are the sum total of nature, nurture and ownership and deeply specific in their topography, wildlife and micro-climate. It is this specificity that attracts species like the stone curlew and also applies to those farmers and conservationists who live and work in the Brecklands and are heafed to its every contour. We all should be haunted by the riches that we so very nearly lost and which remain vulnerable for a myriad of reasons. We cannot be complacent about recent gains.

The Brecklands was once the centre of flint production in Neolithic times and over the centuries became known for its inhospitable sandy terrain which choked and dammed local rivers and streams, partially due to the wholesale destruction by rabbits which were once farmed here and lived in giant warrens, dug out of the friable earth. Referred to as travelling sands, the Brecks were England’s Sahara and were described beautifully by Roger Deakin in his book, Waterlog, and it is this sandy ground which proves so seductive for the stone curlew which arrives here from North Africa to breed each year:

‘The Little Ouse is a wadi running through the Breckland desert. It comes as a surprise to find a river of such beauty in this arid, sandy place, like coming over a barren ridge and seeing the lush palm groves of the Draa Valley of Marrakesh. In the neolithic days when the whole area was a populous centre of industrial flint-mining, the river must have been a busy place.

After the forest was created in the twenties to provide timber for war and a nation keen to build, the topography changed somewhat to coniferous lowland forests that became bedded down in decades of acidic needle mulch surrounded by what was left of the acres of grass, gorse and sand sedged heathlands. Protected miniature ecosystems sprung up among the dark evergreens, the Scots and Corsican pine, Douglas firs and European larches and formed the pine lines that are characteristic of this region and led to over 25% of the British woodlark and 10% of the breeding nightjar population making the forest their home. Deliberately uncultivated land margins are conserved by the Brecks farmers today, home to goldcrests and siskins, lapwings, crossbills, turtle dove, firecrests and woodcock which all live and feed here alongside the ever present muntjac and roe deer.

Breckland pine lines

The Brecklands have become the largest lowland forest in the UK, spanning nearly 1,000 kilometres of sandy flinty soil and they are home to 28% of the UK’s rarest species whilst comprising just 0.4% of the UK’s total landmass. The Forestry Commission and Ministry of Defence are both actively involved in the conservation of their habitats including allowing older stands of timber to remain unfelled and felling other trees in such a way as to develop a complex mosaic of trees and ages . The result? The original serried lines of firs are being superseded by a pattern of sweeping curves and a more naturalistic landscape of mixed broad leaf and evergreen plantings.

The land itself is remarkable bearing the ghostly marks and rubble of the Ice Age as it pushed back from the eastern region.It also bears the scars from the many German bombing incursions during the Second World War:  the region was home to airforce and USAF bases and attracted the wrath of the German war effort as a result. There are the curious ice bubbled pingos (Ice Age ponds) which are home to rare water beetles, the spirograph like etchings from permafrost and curious water filled bomb craters near Lakenheath. Inland sand dunes, lakes and meres are fed by underground springs and the five rivers that wend their way across the Brecks. Year round ground frosts and mists render the land climatically distinct and some of the pudges can remain ice edged far into late spring. The ground is a tapestry of lichens and reindeer moss, sedges, bouncy sedums and plants with evocative names-the fingered speedwell, purging flax, purple milk vetch, military orchid and rabbit grazed Breckland thyme. Many of the plants here come straight from the Steppes of Russia and grow nowhere else in England whilst twenty-five species of invertebrates found in the Brecks are currently listed as being in danger of extinction in Britain and over 40% of the Brecks is protected at a national or international level for its wildlife or geological interest.

One of the great misconceptions of our time is that nature will naturally balance itself if it is left alone, a misconception that ignores the fact that we cannot go back. The naturalisation of non indigenous species means that nature, if left to itself, would revert very swiftly to the dominance of a few species at the expense of others. As many of the farmers we spoke to said, “nature cannot be left to itself anymore but that doesn’t mean we cannot do it in a way that connects us to our environment and respects the festival of nature that the Brecks are.” Take the control of rabbits and use of the Brecks by grazing livestock. A combination of low soil fertility and disturbance of the soil by rabbit digging helps keep out the more vigorous and demanding plants that would otherwise crowd out the drought tolerant local plantlife. Rabbit action maintains an open and friable soil structure- aiding drainage- which benefits the moss, lichens and many Alpine type plants. Grazing ensures the vegetation is kept short and open, reduces the potential for dominance by perennial grasses and keeps tree seedlings in check, a kind of double action effect if you like.

Breckland terrain up close.
Breckland terrain up close.

Bev Nichols from Natural England spoke of the importance of farmers to wildlife conservation, particularly with regard to the stone curlew whose regeneration we were celebrating. Supported by EU legislation, Breckland farmers have provided 110 fallow plots for the birds to breed and nest in alongside cultivated margins, the latter resulting in an equivalent land mass of 520km. The cultivated margins also surround the characteristic pine lines which were at risk of disappearing entirely over the next five decades. These pine lines are rows of mixed pines left in fields and alongside cultivated land and quickly offer shelter and habitat for many of the Brecks species of plant and wildlife.

People in this region are in the top percentile for choosing nature conservation as one of their top criteria and they vote for those who place great importance upon it says Andrew Holland, the Brecks Farm Conservation Advisor: “they vote for nature and want to protect it” and he dreams of a future for the region where “every farm is involved and initiatives are farmer led. Farmers listen to other farmers and they are inspired by them. There’s a lot of proud farmers doing a lot of work…the public don’t see what they do free of charge [curlew protection] and they are proud of it and want it to work.”

He added “Long-term farmland conservation initiatives like this one show that farmers and landowners value and recognise themselves as custodians of wildlife and are keen to play and active role in conservation.

“Wildlife isn’t confined to nature reserves and neither can our efforts to protect it be. If we’re going to succeed in reversing long term species declines and loss of biodiversity, working together with farmers, landowners, and shooting estates, as well as conservation partners, on the scale of the whole landscape is key.”

The statistics on their work with conservation organisations to protect stone curlews speak for themselves. Since 1985, farmers, landowners, gamekeepers and conservationists have worked together to reverse the decline of the stone curlew in the Brecks. Fewer nests have been accidentally destroyed, allowing more chicks to fledge. Now, 30 years on, this pioneering landscape-scale conservation partnership has succeeded in nearly trebling the number of pairs of stone-curlews breeding in the area, with nearly 250 pairs recording breeding in the Brecks in 2012- around 70 per cent of them in arable farmland.  Looking to the future of stone curlews in the UK, an EU LIFE+ funded project lead by the RSPB is helping to increase safe nesting places for stone-curlews to pave the way for a more sustainable population. Working with Natural England and landowners, the project is also helping to develop better measures for landowners to help stone-curlews through the new Countryside Stewardship scheme which is funded via EU schemes.

We asked several farmers attending the event what they would like the general public to know about them and the resounding vote was regarding their environmental conservation and land stewardship, something they felt we knew nothing about:

“What do we wish the public knew about us? That we don’t rip out hedgerows and grub out trees. That we care about the land and look after it for generations to come.”

“Every farmer thinks their patch is special and we take a long term view of it. I know every inch of my land as did my father and as will do my own children”

“People hear the word ‘subsidy’ and they think you are sitting at home gathering in money. That’s not the case”

“We have a vested interest in conservation and we are interested in every aspect of it. We care about pollen and nectar mixes in the wildseed we sow. We care about plants that other folks would walk over blindly and not notice.”

“Farmers have always done bits and pieces of conservation work themselves over the years and now we have a coordinated approach. We have a will and we know there’s a way.”

In addition to this, local gamekeepers were also keen to be identified as conservators of nature and sought to distance themselves from rogue behaviour that has been rightly prosecuted when it involves the destruction of birds of prey. They appealed to the RSPB and similar organisations to “please recognise gamekeepers as as helpful force. we’ve been demonised unfairly and it is important to recognise what we and shooting estates do to conserve wildlife.”

The heathland of the Brecks which is such a suitable home for the Stone Curlew
Cavenham heath, Breckland in September: home of the Stone Curlew

Farmers spoke passionately and eloquently about the specific measures they have taken to protect the stone curlew and the affection and regard they hold the bird in was apparent. One farmer, Chris Knights was to receive a lifetime achievement award from the RSPB and spoke of his lifelong passion for stone curlews which were once known locally and descriptively as the wailing heath chicken: “I would stand on the stone steps of my farmhouse as a child and hear them calling in the night.” His decades of experience provided the audience with a welter of anecdotes. He spoke of a bird that sometimes managed to raise two broods per season causing hm to erect a hide on his land to photograph this less then common occurrence and of his first set aside (which is used to provide the birds with a nesting ground) which happened accidentally after the wind damaged crops and he decided to not bother re-drilling it. He watched the chicks hatch, camouflaged among the flint and sand of the Brecks grow and develop adult plumage, their blue eyes and baby legs changing to yellow at six weeks rendering them even harder to spot.

The usually shy stone curlews grow bold in protecting their young from the livestock that sometimes share their nesting grounds- Chris has seen them usher sheep from the nest, actually pecking at their noses to get them away although they are generally shy, unsociable birds active at night, congregating only at breeding time when they roost. An odd looking bird, or, as one farmer said, “A bird not too far along from its dinosaur ancestors”, they do look prehistoric with their knobbly blueish knees and beady yellow eyes and exist symbiotically with the much maligned rabbit whose habits produce the disturbed ground they favour as nesting sites. The recent decline of the Breckland rabbit population (mentioned by farmers) is being monitored for any knock on effects on the curlew (as it did in the Mixymatosis outbreak of the fifties) from undergrazing which allows the vegetation to grow too tall for the stone curlew. Funnily enough later on in the Spring, when I mentioned the sudden and recent decline of the Brecklands rabbit population to Michaela Strachan during the press call for the BBC show Springwatch, she appeared incredulous to the point of not believing me at all.

Breckland botany

Chris paid his own tribute to the RSPB who, he said “have the knack of getting good people who can talk and work with anybody, the farmers, tractor drivers, whatever” and Chris is one of these good people too. So dedicated to protecting the stone curlew is he that he paid the tractor drivers that worked for him all their lives to spot the nests and move them- £1 per nest.

And with regards to that nest spotting, it is hard, tedious and mentally exhausting work, especially as modern agri-farming techniques raise the farmer high above the ground literally and metaphorically, making nests harder to spot. Farming operations, such as the rolling of cereals, weed control cultivations and the use of irrigation equipment all pose particular challenges. Imagine a field that is pretty much the same colour as the bird and its nest and then imagine trying to cope with the vagaries of a bird which may or may not choose to breed and nest on the set aside land you have left uncultivated and sprayed to prevent it from becoming over vegetated. As farmers explained to us, get the timing wrong and the stone curlew may avoid it altogether because the ground has attracted other birds to it, putting them off or the vegetation has started to grow too long. When this happens, the bird may decide to nest on tilled and cultivated land meaning hours spent patrolling the fields looking out for nests. The nests are on the ground and the chicks lay prone with their brown baby feathers, flecked by silver grey striations. And your eyes apparently do not become habituated to them: they remain elusive, well camouflaged animals producing eggs and chicks that are pretty indistinguishable from their surroundings which means they may be destroyed by farm machinery.

The environment secretary Liz Truss MP whose constituency includes a large part of the stone curlew’s range in the Brecks also attended Friday’s event as the guest of one of her farming constituents. On the night she paid tribute to Chris Knight saying “Everything we do is based upon Chris’s experience. knowledge and love for wildlife” and she extended her praise to the many organisations involved and farmers in general speaking of her “pride in representing such a fantastic part of the country which is a great food producing region.” She added “It is good to see Natural England working in such a common sense way. We’ve seen huge progress in the way we manage land. Farmland is vital for the state of nature and we cannot have one without the other.”

“Farmers are the leading edge in technology and the way they [Breckland] farm makes me very glad to be their MP.”

Farmers and landowners in the Brecks who would like to find out more about what they can do for wildlife on their land can contact Andrew Holland for free advice on 01842 756714 07540 692905 or e-mail

Cavenham Heath, early evening in September where we heard the Stone Curlews call.
Cavenham Heath, early evening in September where we heard the Stone Curlews call.



This piece originally appeared on Bury Spy


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