Recollections about one of East Anglia’s most emblematic birds are being sought in an innovative effort to prevent the species becoming just a distant memory in parts of one of its former strongholds.

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The curious-looking, highly charismatic stone-curlew is now one of Britain’s rarest breeding bird species but was once a familiar sight for farm workers on the Suffolk Sandlings – the distinctive tract of light, sandy, stony soils east of the A12, stretching from Kessingland in the north to the River Orwell in the south.

With its wild, yellow eyes, long yellow legs and its eerie, other-worldly calls that pierce the night, the migratory, crow-sized species has several nicknames - such as the evocative “wailing heath chicken” and “Norfolk plover”, although Suffolk ornithologists may have something to say about the latter.

It is as distinctive as the habitat it requires - mainly stone-strewn areas of short-cropped grass heath and farmland that are on free-draining, sandy soils. And it is the bird’s close connection with such habitat that the RSPB hopes will help in the society’s efforts to bolster the species’ currently tiny Suffolk Sandlings breeding population.

After several years of painstaking conservation work that has brought the area’s population up to 13 pairs, the RSPB is hoping the species’ past will lead it to a brighter future, with many more breeding pairs and a much wider distribution throughout the Sandlings. The society is appealing for historic records of stone-curlews from anyone who has knowledge of their previous whereabouts in the area.

The RSPB’s Brecks Farm conservation adviser Andrew Holland, whose work also takes in the Sandlings and north-west Norfolk, said: “The stone-curlew population in the Sandlings is now a small remnant of what it used to be. Of the 13 pairs we were aware of in 2013, none were on farmland.

“The population is largely limited to an area around Westleton and Blythburgh and on nature reserves such as RSPB Minsmere, where the population is nearing its potential capacity - and you know what they say about having all your eggs in one basket. Formerly, they would have been found throughout the Sandlings, with farmland playing an important role for breeding stone-curlews, with its light, stony, sandy soils favoured highly, and there is no reason why it should not be today.”

Through work undertaken in a higher level stewardship agri-environment scheme with Jane Thomson, a conservation-conscious landowner in the Westleton area, a former farm worker on the land she now owns had provided important historic information about stone-curlews that has triggered the wider appeal, said Mr Holland.

Sam Felton worked the Westleton land in the late 1950s and early 1960s- and vividly recalls its stone-curlews. “When we were hoeing through sugar beet and came across a nest we would lift the machine so as to avoid damaging it or smashing the eggs,” said Mr Felton, who still lives nearby.

Mr Holland said that with modern farming techniques it was harder to see nests in a field, although some farmers did work around them when they were found. “Today the use of agri-environment schemes are a great way of creating safe nesting plots for ground-nesting birds like the stone-curlew. The arable option available requires the farmer to leave an area of ground fallow and undisturbed during the breeding season, in return for which he or she receives a payment.

“There is no reason why areas used in the past by stone-curlews would not be suitable now. With the use of agri-environment schemes safe nesting plots can be created and managed in these areas - the only problem is we don’t know where they all nested throughout the Sandlings in years gone by. We are keen to hear from people like Sam, who used to work on the land when they were younger and have seen stone-curlews on the farms they worked on, whether they were nesting or not.

“There might be stone-curlews out in the Sandlings this year that we do not know about, and, again, these sightings would be gratefully received,”added Mr Holland.

Anyone with information about stone-curlews in the Sandlings - historic or current - can contact Mr Holland on 01842 756714 or by emailing him

RSPB

The RSPB’s Eastern England stone-curlew recovery project aims to reverse the decline in the region’s stone-curlew population – and thanks to the society’s work with scores of farmers the species’ fortunes have been turned around.

Nationally, the species’ population plummeted from perhaps 2,000 pairs in the 1920s to just 168 pairs in 1991. By 2012 however, the number had been boosted to more than 400 pairs. The Norfolk and Suffolk Brecks holds the UK’s largest population, with 114 breeding pairs monitored by the RSPB in 2013.

Having lost much of their preferred rabbit-grazed grass-heath habitat, most stone-curlews in eastern England nest on arable land - more than 76% did so in 2012 – and intervention by fieldworkers and farmers is required to prevent the destruction of eggs and chicks during farmland operations.

The current four-year programme of conservation work that is funded by the European Union’s LIFE+ project began in 2012 and aims to establish a sustainable stone-curlew population through:

• working with farmers to protect nest and chicks on arable land

• assisting farmers with agri-environmental scheme applications and ongoing management of stone-curlew nesting areas through the provision of fallow nest plots

• encouraging and supporting the restoration and creation of grass-heath habitat

• seeking long-term protection for key habitats

• supporting the development of agri-environment and other long-term mechanisms to provide future habitat for stone-curlews

In addition to the Norfolk and Suffolk Brecks, stone-curlews in the east of England are found in the Suffolk Sandlings, north-west Norfolk and the chalk areas of south Cambridgeshire, north Hertfordshire and north Essex.

The RSPB offers free advice to farmers in such areas who want to provide habitat for stone-curlews.

Lackford

Suffolk farm estate owner Robert Gough proudly admits that stone-curlews are close to his heart. And he has certainly helped to plot the species’ recovery – with plot being very much the operative word.

Mr Gough owns the 3,000-acre Lackford Estate in the Brecks and his relationship with the RSPB stretches back to 1993, when there were two pairs of this special species on his land. Through his involvement with the society and his work in entry level stewardship (ELS) and higher level stewardship (HLS) agri-environment schemes, Mr Gough has since seen the stone-curlew population on his land increase to a maximum of 14 pairs, an impressive level that was reached in 2012.

“We had been working under a previous environmental scheme but when they ended about five years ago it seemed that it would be such a shame not to do anything else after so many years of working with the RSPB,” he said.

Now all his estate is in ELS or HLS, with his stone-curlew work all within the latter and including the provision of strategically sited plots for the species. The plots are fallow areas managed so that emergent vegetation is kept at the optimum level for the birds’ breeding requirements – and such is Mr Gough’s enthusiasm that each plot is far bigger than is required under the HLS provisions.

“I am delighted that over the years we have been working with the RSPB our stone-curlews have been increasing year on year,” said Mr Gough. “I am very proud of the fact that the numbers we have here have been going up - it is an emblematic bird of Breckland and it is one that is very close to my heart.”

Tim Cowan, the RSPB’s stone-curlew recovery project officer for the East of England, is in no doubt about the importance of the work undertaken for the species on Mr Gough’s estate - and for the many other forms of wildlife that benefit through the estate’s ELS and HLS agreements.

“There were six stone-curlew plots on the estate last year and there will be seven this year - in the Brecks in general stone-curlew plot occupancy is about 50% but on the Lackford Estate we have 100%, which is really good,” he said.

“Last year there were 13 pairs - just one short of the peak of 14 the year before - but last March and April were very cold and several stone-curlews were found dead across the Brecks.

“There were 20% fewer stone-curlews breeding in the Brecks last year but the 13 pairs on the Lackford Estate showed that on Mr Gough’s land the population stood up very well.

“It will be very interesting to see what impact last year has on the stone-curlews in the Brecks in general this year.

“We hope that on areas such as Lackford Estate, and all the other farms we work closely with, the species’ recovery will keep on improving.”

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