Nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus) - Species Action Plan

Ref 2/S11 Species Action Plan 11
Plan Author: RSPB
Plan Co-ordinator: Farmland BAP Topic Group
Plan Leader: RSPB
Final Draft January 2006

Action Plan Summary

Current Status

National Status

  • The nightjar is a summer migrant that has been declining in numbers and range for much of the last century, particularly since the 1950s, reaching a low point of 2,100 males in 1981, with a decline in range of 52% between 1968-72 and 1992. There was a partial recovery in the size of the population which had reached 3,400 males in 1992. The last national survey of nightjars was in 2004 and revealed a total population estimated at 4,600 churring males, representing a 36% increase in 12 years. Nightjars showed only a 2.6% increase in occupancy of 10-km squares since 1992. The species now breeds mainly in southern England, but there are scattered populations as far north as central Scotland. It is probably now extinct as a breeding species in Northern Ireland where its former habitats included cut-over raised bogs. Lowland heathland and young forestry plantations are now the most important habitats. An increase in forestry clear-fells and forest management have assisted recent increases, with 57% of the total population found in forest plantations in the 2004 survey. In Europe, the species has been declining in numbers and range since at least 1950, especially in north-west and northern Europe.
  • The nightjar is protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and Schedule 1 of the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1985, and is listed on Annex 1 of the EC Birds Directive and Appendix II of the Bern Convention.

Norfolk Status

  • The 1992 national survey found 223 churring males in 14 ten km squares in Norfolk; the majority were found in plantation woodland. A further survey carried out in Thetford Forest (Norfolk and Suffolk) in 1998 found 420 territories, a marked increase since 1988/89 when 293 territories were estimated.
  • The 2004 national survey found 313 churring males in 14 ten km squares in Norfolk.

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Current factors causing loss or decline in Norfolk

  • The area of heathland in the UK has undergone a dramatic reduction during the course of this century due to agricultural land claim, afforestation and development. It is estimated that 40% of England's lowland heathland has been destroyed since the 1950s.
  • Where heathland lacks appropriate management, it will become unsuitable as nesting habitat due to invasion by scrub and trees.
  • Nightjars require extensive areas of suitable feeding habitat, especially uncultivated land. The loss of such habitats within a few kilometres of the nesting area may result in a decline in the number of birds.
  • It is possible that a decline in the availability of large insects caused by changes in agriculture and/or climatic change, may have affected nightjar populations.
  • In commercial forests, nightjars nest in the young plantations, while there is still bare ground between trees. If no other suitable habitat becomes available in other new or young stands, local population declines could occur as the recently planted blocks mature.
  • Although the recent increase in nightjar numbers in this region is dramatic, a long term decline is noted from the early part of this century. The causes of the decline nationally are also the most likely candidates for local decline in this period. Much of the recovery between 1981 and 2004 has been attributed to large scale felling of mature conifer plantations across the UK, leading to areas of clear-fell and new restocks. Also, the restoration of lowland heathlands for conservation is increasing the area of suitable habitat for nightjars. However, the increases in numbers may be reversed if the area of forestry clearfells and restocks declines in the future.

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Current Action in Norfolk

  • 53% of the UK population (1992 survey) was found on SPA (JNCC SPA Review). This figure is likely to change as a result of the population increase since the 1992 survey and the extension of the SPA coverage to include Thetford Forest, where 12,700ha will be retained in suitable rotational clearfell.
  • Nightjars occur on a number of heathland nature reserves which are managed partly for their benefit.
  • The North Norfolk Tomorrow's Heathland Heritage (THH) initiative has restored 750ha and re-created 75ha heathland, which has assisted this species on a number of sites.
  • Norfolk Wildlife Trust has purchased 110ha of afforested heathland adjacent to Grimston Warren for heathland re-creation.

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Action Plan Objectives and Targets


  • Achieve an increase in the number of churring males to 4800 by 2016.
  • Maintain the current range of nightjar (there were 269 occupied 10 km squares in 2004).
  • Increase the range to 305 occupied ten km squares by 2016 (a 13% range increase in 12 years).
  • In the long term (next 20 years), restore nightjar to parts of its former range in, for example, south-west England, west Midlands, north-west England, south-west Scotland and Northern Ireland.


  • Maintain as a minimum 313 breeding pairs of nightjar in Norfolk in the existing 2004 range of 14 ten km squares.
  • By increasing the area of suitable habitat, increase the possible breeding and feeding areas for the nightjar, and so provide scope for further population expansion in the county.

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