ALARMING new figures suggest that one of Britain's rarest ground-nesting birds is at risk of extinction in southern England - including its New Forest stronghold.
Experts are warning that the iconic sight and sound of curlews in the Forest could soon be a thing of the past - thanks partly to disturbance caused by walkers, cyclists and dogs.
It follows a survey by Wild New Forest, which provides data to the Forestry Commission, Natural England and New Forest National Park Authority (NPA).
The group found just 40 breeding pairs of curlews across the National Park last year, suggesting a drop of almost two thirds in ten years.
Nationally curlews have declined by 24 per cent over the past 25 years. There are now less than 200 pairs left in the south which, according to experts, makes the New Forest situation even more disturbing.
Now the NPA and other organisations have issued a warning to the public ahead of the curlew nesting season, which starts in April or May.
Nigel Matthews, the NPA's head of recreation, management and learning, told the Daily Echo: "The New Forest curlew population is extremely important – in some ways it’s a barometer for the well-being of wildlife in the area.
"Disturbance is likely to be a cause of the decline and it’s vital we do all we can to reduce instances of birds being startled by people.
"Working with other Forest organisations, we have helped design new signs for use across the open forest this year. The signs make it clear that walkers and their dogs, cyclists and horse riders should all stay on the main tracks when crossing heathland from now until August."
Prof Russell Wynn, a member of Wild New Forest and the NPA, issued a similar plea.