Posted on behalf of Emily Field, Project Manager - Stone-curlew UK (EU LIFE+)
Our final blog in this series comes from Dominic Ash. Dominic joined the MoD Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO) as an ecologist on Salisbury Plain in 1995. Part of his role was to ensure that management and use of the site did not conflict with designated speciesand habitats. Stone-curlews are a designated feature of the Special Protection Area, and juggling their needs with that of the military, archaeology, tenant farmers, and other wildlife is not a straightforward task.
Creation and management of fallow nesting plots in suitable areas, as well as rotation of cattle grazing in foraging areas, has maintained the stone-curlew population. In his new role at DIO, he has helped to secure the restoration of around 3,000 hectares of grass heath at the MoD’s Stanford Training Area (STANTA) in eastern England to benefit stone-curlews and over 300 other priority species. Dominic often spends his own time monitoring the birds and ringing chicks.
Dominic Ash, weighing a stone-curlew to egg on Salisbury Plain to estimate its hatch date. Image: Dominic Ash
"I can remember seeing my first stone-curlew in the late 1970s as it flew in off the sea at Portland. I met up with the early project staff in the mid-1980s while volunteering at Martin Down National Nature Reserve with my future colleague and fellow stone-curlew manager Paul Toynton.
In the late 1980s I got a job with the Nature Conservancy Council working on the designation of Salisbury Plain. From there, I started looking at management of the chalk downland, which included stone-curlews.
When I took a job with the Ministry of Defence on Salisbury Plain in the mid-1990s, I took on the management of the eastern side of Salisbury Plain. This included a stone-curlew management plan. I developed the programme of creating stone-curlew breeding sites and assessing their success.
I worked with the various staff of the RSPB stone-curlew project and fed in the data, by finding nests, ringing chicks and assessing outcomes. In this time we raised the stone-curlew population on the Ministry of Defence estate from 16 pairs to 35.
When you can manage a site like Salisbury Plain into one of such high quality for nature conservation, when on summer evenings you can sit and watch stone-curlews, see Montagu’s harriers and hobbies flying around you, hear quails and common curlews and watch brown hares, grey partridges, wheatears and lapwings using your managed plot, why wouldyou want to do anything else?"
For more information on the stone-curlew project that all our heroes have been involved in, please visit www.rspb.org.uk/securingthestonecurlew
Our penultimate post in our stone-curlew series comes from Chris Knights. Chris has been involved in almost every aspect of stone-curlew conservation from farm management to professional photography for more than 50 years. Few people have dedicated so much of their lives to stone-curlew conservation and this is why in 2015 we presented him with a lifetime achievement award.
He farmed around 1,300 hectares of predominantly arable land in West Norfolk, and went to extraordinary lengths to ensure the success of stone-curlews nesting on the land he managed. He allows the RSPB to use his images to highlight conservation management to other farmers and the wider community. Now retired, he continues to monitor and photograph wildlife on the farm and plays a key role advocating stone-curlew conservation and habitat management to other farmers and landowners throughout the Brecks.
One of Chris Knights’ award winning photographs (c) Chris Knights
"I’ve been keen on wildlife from an early age. As a boy growing up in the Brecks, I spent hours watching birds and finding their nests. As a landowner and farm manager from the 1960s until my recent retirement, I was keen to do all I could to help stone-curlews along.
I used to pay farm workers out of my own pocket for every stone-curlew nest they found, and we would then work the farming operations around nests to ensure that birds could incubate eggs and raise chicks undisturbed; in fact sometimes we would delay working an entire field to accommodate the birds.
We must have been doing something right because stone-curlew numbers increased year on year. As a wildlife photographer I’m very fortunate to have stone-curlews on my doorstep, and they are fantastic birds to photograph. I got a shot of a stone-curlew and a lamb which I’m very pleased with – it won second prize in the British Birds Bird Photographer of the Year Award. In the 1990s I also made a film about stone-curlews called “Stone Runners” for the Survival ITV series. Stone-curlews are very elusive, so to capture different aspects of their behaviour on film takes a lot of time, patience and persistence.
I’m extremely pleased that the current farming tenants have continued the tradition of looking after stone-curlews and am proud that the farm now holds one of the highest densities of breeding stone-curlews in the UK."
Today’s guest blog comes from another of our stone-curlew heroes, Rachel Hosier, whose family has farmed near Stonehenge in Wiltshire for generations. 92 hectares of the farm is now an RSPB nature reserve through a land management agreement. Chalk downland has been restored, sheep grazing has been established across the site, and stone-curlew plots are cultivated and managed annually. The down is home to two breeding pairs of stone-curlews annually, and most years there are more than a dozen pairs of lapwings too.
Every autumn Rachel allows the RSPB to run tours for others to enjoy the spectacle of roosting flocks occasionally exceeding 50 birds. In 2013 we chose the roost on her farm as the perfect place to release a young lost stone-curlew which had been rehabilitated by a local rescue centre.
Rachel Hosier putting back two chicks that have just been colour ringed by RSPB stone-curlew project staff on her fallow plot. Image: Rachel Hosier
"My earliest memories of stone-curlews were as a young girl sitting in my father’s Land Rover while he checked the cows calving in the spring. I will never forget the sight of that strangely prehistoric looking bird with the eerie call. In those days, there were no schemes available to help these rare birds, but as my father was a great lover of wildlife we did what we could to help.
The introduction of agri-environment schemes with the added financial support has enabled us to do far more. Added to this, the greater understanding of the birds’ needs, coupled with monitoring, and we have seen a steady growth in the stone-curlew population over the years. Indeed, it is now at a level that we have become one of the autumn roosts. It’s a real “wow” factor seeing a group of 50 stone-curlews, and I am proud that we’ve been able to play our part in the success of the species.I am also thrilled that now my daughter comes out with me in the Land Rover when I am checking the cows at spring time and she too has an interest in this incredible bird.
It’s been very exciting to see the stone-curlews flourish on the four plots we have. I owe a lot to the stone-curlew as a species. If it wasn’t for the fact that they seem to love our farm we would certainly not have gone on to create RSPB Normanton Down nature reserve."