I’ve been stared at by the strangest bird in Britain. The yellow, goggle-eyed gaze of the stone curlew was once believed to cure jaundice. People would pay to be eyeballed by one. Nowadays the stone curlew is so rare that many bird lovers make pilgrimages to the few nature reserves where they can make eye contact. But the stone curlew is becoming more eye-catching – from 150 pairs in the 1980s to 400 today – thanks to farmers and conservationists working together.
I admired several on arable fields in the Breckland region of East Anglia with Rob Hawkes, an RSPB ecologist who for the first time in Britain is using GPS to study the movements of stone curlews. Catching five birds to put satellite tags on them was a heroic endeavour because these notoriously shy animals are crepuscular feeders, running across fields at dusk, huge eyes angled downwards in search of beetles to eat. But Hawkes managed it, and his satellite data is revealing. It shows that birds travel farther from their nest sites than previously realised, and in the Brecks one location is particularly attractive: pig farms.
The rise in outdoor pig farming in this area helps the birds find plenty of beetles in pig muck. It’s obvious that most conservation in a heavily farmed country depends on farmers. In turn, farmers’ impressive commitment – one farmer,Robert Gough, has five pairs of stone curlew on seven specially created nesting plots – is supported by EU agri-environment schemes. Farmers are compensated if they sacrifice a hectare of arable field for a stone curlew nest plot. But the RSPB says it is struggling to persuade more farmers to create such spaces because it is not clear whether they will be funded after Brexit. Farmers need to plan ahead, which is why the government must establish how it will support post-Brexit farming sooner rather than later.
Not so dirty rat
Plummeting numbers of a grass-devouring pest, the rabbit, are also causing problems for the stone curlew in Breckland because the bird’s traditional heathland habitat is becoming too overgrown. In places now, rabbits are actively encouraged.
Over on the island of Lundy, the eradication of the brown and black rat has helped puffins increase from five birds 10 years ago to more than 300 this year. The campaign group Animal Aid condemns the rat cull for favouring a profitable animal (the tourist-magnet puffin) over a less cute beast. The brown rat is ubiquitous, but another eradication programme on Scotland’s Shiant Islands (untroubled by mass tourism) will kill much of the remaining British population of the black rat, Rattus rattus, one of our most endangered species. Perhaps our definition of pest will change.
One casualty of the grouse season, which opens this Friday, is the pest known as the hen harrier, illegally killed because it has a penchant for red grouse. It must get boring popping lead shot into a blizzard of grouse, because the shooters (captain: Ian Botham) have devised a new sport: The BBC Must Sack Chris Packham.
Last year’s chase ended in defeat for them and victory for the wildlife presenter Packham. But Botham has opened this season, describing Packham, who has Asperger’s, as suffering from “eco-Tourettes” because, outside of his BBC hours, Packham supports a petition to ban driven grouse shooting (77,000 signatures and counting). It would be shameful if the BBC capitulated, not least because Packham’s departure would rob Botham et al of this seasonal pursuit. We mustn’t deny them their sport, must we?