Bumper year for stone curlews on The Brecks

Farmer Andrew Steward at Rowley Farm, Hilborough. Picture: Ian Burt

Farmer Andrew Steward at Rowley Farm, Hilborough. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: Ian Burt

Conservation work by farmers and landowners has been praised after stone-curlews in The Brecks enjoyed their best breeding season since 2011.

The partnership project involving RSPB field workers saw numbers of the highly threatened bird bounce back after its population in the area fell by nearly 20 per cent in 2013.

Poor weather during the breeding season in 2012 and 2013 caused low productivity, but this year's more typical spring weather contributed to a welcome improvement in breeding success, with the number of breeding pairs up to 240 by the end of the summer.

Stone-curlews migrate from Northern Africa and Southern Europe to breed in the Brecks, which is one of its last strongholds in the UK.

An RSPB spokesman said: 'Numbers of stone-curlews breeding in the UK fell by more than 85 per cent between 1940 and 1985, largely due to loss of their breeding habitat: low dry grassland and heath.

'The increase in the population over the last 30 years is attributable to the combined efforts of our conservation partners, landowners, farm workers, and gamekeepers, often working together with RSPB fieldworkers to protect nests on arable farmland and manage safe nesting habitat such as fallow plots and grass heathland.'

The RSPB has been running the stone-curlew project in the Brecks since 1985 when there were fewer than 100 breeding pairs in the Brecks; however the success of the project would not have been possible without everyone's combined effort and dedication to saving this species.

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Andrew Steward, pictured,who has a mixed farm at Hilborough, in the Brecks, said: 'The RSPB started wardens during the breeding season on our farm in the late 1990s.

'At that time when they found a nest in a dense crop like barley there was a system where you got paid to spray a hectare around the nest.'

Since 2006 his farm has become involved in agri-environment schemes and Mr Steward has established four two-hectare breeding plots.

He said: 'The stone curlew is the main reason we were accepted into the Higher Level Stewardship agri-environment scheme. To have birds nesting on the plots created specifically for them gives me great satisfaction.

'For the last two years we have carried out trials with the finish, leaving some areas ploughed, some ploughed and pressed and others under cultivation.'

While they normally attracted one or two breeding pairs, this year they had birds breeding on every plot and five chicks had fledged.

Apart from creating stone curlew plots, Mr Steward is also implementing other measures supported by the scheme such as planting wild bird seed mixes and over winter stubbles.

This has resulted in an increase in smaller farmland birds such as the yellowhammer and the linnet, and they also have a good number of brown hares.