Bird News for United Kingdom 2010

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Farmers: the stone-curlew's vital champion

2nd December 2010

Two decades of vital help from England's farmers has seen the population of one of our rarest farmland birds more than double. The recovery of the stone-curlew is a great illustration of the effectiveness of targeted conservation action and conservation organisations working closely with farmers. But, with conservation funding squeezed in last month's Comprehensive Spending Review, the RSPB is concerned that the recovery may be halted or worse as some farmers will miss out on payments.

In the late 1980s, there were only 160 pairs of this threatened ground-nesting bird breeding in the UK – all in Southern and Eastern England. This year, 370 pairs are known to have bred.

Rallied to the cause
Dr Mark Avery is the RSPB's Director of Conservation. He said: 'Farmers have rallied to the cause of the stone-curlew, and the bird's UK recovery owes much to their support. Stone-curlews nest in bare, open areas, often choosing farm fields where their nests or young could be lost to routine farm operations. RSPB project officers help farmers to identify threatened nests and take action to protect them. We also provide advice to farmers using green farming schemes, including the Higher Level Scheme, to benefit this bird.'
The higher level agri-environment scheme is key to the stone-curlew's future. It provides support for farmers to manage parts of their fields specifically for the birds. Dr Mark Avery added: 'We target the right management measures to the places where it can make most the difference, and it works. For example, this year, approaching half of the stone-curlews in South West England were on specially-created plots and these birds were slightly more successful in raising young than the rest of the population.'

Stone Curlew.Pic Birdersmarket.com
The stone-curlew is a dove-sized, long-legged, wading bird. More common in southern Europe, the bird reaches the northern edge of its range in Britain, with most of the birds occurring in two centres: Wessex – especially around Salisbury Plain - and the Brecklands, on the Norfolk and Suffolk border. About a quarter of the population nest on MoD land.

Encouraging

The population of stone-curlews was up 11 pairs on last year's total. However, even more encouraging was their productivity: 240 chicks were known to have been successfully raised, compared with only 164 in 2009. The number nesting on RSPB nature reserves also increased from 12 pairs in 2009 to 17 pairs this year, and these birds again raised more chicks than the national average.

Traditionally, stone-curlews nest in open habitats, such as heathland and downland. Dr Mark Avery added: 'Looking forward, we hope that we can get more heathland and downland into good condition for the benefit of stone-curlews. This will help to ensure that these retiring birds have a safe and secure long-term future.'

Dr Avery also paid tribute to the support the RSPB's stone-curlew work has received from Natural England. He said: 'Natural England has provided fantastic support for the stone-curlew recovery project over many years, most recently through the Action for Birds in England (AFBIE) programme. They have been a great partner.'

Commenting on the future of the stone-curlew in England, Dr Mark Avery concluded: 'We were pleased that the Government largely protected the budget for the Higher Level Scheme in last month's spending review, in the medium term. However, we are concerned that the recent temporary freeze in new agreements will mean that some farmers who were ready to introduce measures for stone-curlews next spring will miss out. This would be a setback to recent progress. Stone-curlews are a good example of why scarce money needs to be targeted towards clear environmental needs.'

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What future for England's hen harriers?

What future for England's hen harriers?

With only seven successful nests in 2010, a large shadow hangs over the future of the hen harrier as an English breeding species, unless the illegal killing of this bird of prey can be brought to a halt.

A comprehensive English hen harrier survey found that only 12 pairs of hen harrier attempted to nest in England this year, despite evidence showing there is enough habitat for over 300 pairs. Seven successful nesting pairs is one more pair than nested successfully in 2009, but it is only half the number of successful nesting pairs just three years ago, graphically illustrating the continued danger of such a small population slipping into extinction as an English breeding species for a second time: historically, the hen harrier was persecuted to extinction across mainland Britain.
Dr Mark Avery is the RSPB’s Director of Conservation. He said: “Persecution, associated with land managed for driven-grouse shooting, remains the main reason for the hundreds of missing pairs. Even though these birds now have the full protection of the law, the persecution of birds of prey remains devastatingly common.

Imprisoning
“We welcome moves by Roseanna Cunningham - Scotland’s environment minister - to consider options for fining or imprisoning those land owners who manage staff who are convicted of killing birds of prey in Scotland. Now that the future of the hen harrier in England hangs by a thread, we now need to consider all measures necessary to prevent the extinction of this bird in our uplands.
“In February, we submitted a 210,000-strong petition to the former Wildlife Minister, calling for the greater protection of birds of prey. It is vital that popular support for these birds does not go unheard while the hen harrier remains in such dire need of their support. As a first step, Government should confirm that the future of the National Wildlife Crime Unit is secure.”

English Stronghold


Five of the successful pairs (from 10 nesting attempts) were on the United Utilities estate in the Forest of Bowland, in Lancashire, which remains this bird’s only English stronghold.

Preventing the persecution of birds of prey is one of the Government’s key wildlife crime priorities, yet enforcement of the laws protecting it is clearly not proving effective.

Dr Mark Avery added: “It is shocking that protected birds of prey are still being killed illegally in the UK. In this International Year of Biodiversity, we challenge the Coalition Government to provide the leadership and political will necessary to address the problem and re-iterate our challenge to moorland owners and managers to allow hen harriers to settle and breed.”

Detective Inspector Brian Stuart, Head of the UK National Wildlife Crime Unit, said: “Last year England again produced a disappointing number of young hen harriers. The police will continue to work with our partners in conservation and land management to support the survival of the hen harrier in the Forest of Bowland whilst identifying ways to prevent criminality and enforce the laws wherever they have been broken.”

Tom Franklin of the Ramblers said: “One of the joys of walking in the British countryside is the chance to witness our beautiful native birds of prey. To suddenly see them soar above you can instantly lift your spirits. You feel so close to wild nature. It is a tragedy that hen harriers are no longer seen across large swathes of upland England. The Ramblers is at one with the RSPB in calling for greater protection for these birds.”

Paul Irving, Chairman of Northern England Raptor Forum, said: “A change in the legislation and enforcement is long overdue to more effectively protect the last few pairs of what is one of our most charismatic birds and to allow them to thrive and spread. We will all be the poorer if the hen harrier is lost from English uplands where it truly belongs.”

Formerly, the hen harrier was widely distributed in the UK, but persecution restricted its range to Orkney and the Western Isles by 1900. RSPB

Hen Harrier Pic. Piwen Chang

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