Endangered nightjar fighting back in former commercial timber woods, to delight of conservationists

An endangered summer bird is bouncing back after woodland and heathland was restored by the National Trust at former timber plantations.

Two former commercial conifer sites in southern England, now actively managed for wildlife, have fostered the revival.

Fledglings were found for the first time on the Mottisfont Estate by volunteer rangers alerted to a possible nest by the distinctive ‘churring’ call of an adult male.

The elusive nightjar – a nocturnal hawk-like bird that migrates thousands of miles to breed – has declined dramatically in previous decades due to the loss of its heath and woodland habitats, and increasing disturbance.

The adult birds were attracted to clearings that appeared as conifer plantations were felled, and the landscape began its transition back to native deciduous woodland. Rangers hope to build on this success by retaining glades to attract more ground-nesting birds as the broadleaved woods develop.

Mottisfont ranger Catherine Hadler, said, “This is a fantastic example of how woodland management can benefit species that have declined rapidly in recent decades due to habitat loss. We’ll be doing everything we can to encourage this wonderful bird back to the Mottisfont Estate in years to come.”

At Foxbury in the New Forest, a unique heathland restoration project has recorded its greatest ever number of breeding nightjars. 27 males and six females were counted during a recent survey at the site, which only ten years earlier was a private commercial timber plantation. With the conifers cleared, traditional grazing introduced and the gradual planting of native broadleaved trees, the classic lowland heath landscape for which the Forest is famous is returning, and with it, the wildlife.

Controlled access to the site has also dramatically reduced the risk of disturbance to the nightjar and other endangered ground-nesting birds, like the woodcock.

Alan Snook, New Forest ornithology specialist and Chairman of the New Forest Bird Group: “Foxbury is a huge success story for wildlife. I think it’s safe to say it now holds the densest population of nightjars in the New Forest – an amazing achievement in such a short space of time.

“The scattered trees provide the necessary perches for nightjars to ‘churr’ from, and the heath provides prey in the form of moths and beetles. Ironically, because footfall is managed and the birds aren’t constantly disturbed, more people than otherwise have had a wonderful nightjar experience on a summer’s evening because of the National Trust’s guided nightjar walks.”

“We’re managing Foxbury and our other Forest commons specifically to encourage traditional New Forest wildlife but nightjars are just one of the species thriving here,” said community ranger Jake White. “Along with plants such as heather, gorse and sundews, we’re also seeing specialist heathland wildlife like the silver-studded blue butterfly and the Dartford warbler, as well as breeding adders, and over 17 species of dragonfly.”

80% of the UK’s lowland heaths – home to some of the UK’s rarest species of animal and plantlife – have been lost since the 1800s.

Close up of nightjar on New Forest common, credit National Trust Images

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