Monday , June 24 2024



I can honestly say that despite tramping over Dartmoor for a few decades I have never seen sight nor sound of the elusive Dunlin. The Dunlin or Calidris alpina if one wants to be official is a  small wading bird that tends to breed in upland bogs and then migrate to low lying mud flats in the winter. It has been said that winter Dunlin numbers have declined by around 50% during the past 25 years. However the UK breeding population remains fairly static but none the less the species appears on the Birds of Conservation Concern red list. It is estimated that the entire UK population numbers around 9,600 pairs.

The good news for Dartmoor is that its upland bogs and mires are the most southerly breeding area in the world. Not only that but Dartmoor is the home to the only breeding population of Dunlin in Southern England. So it should come as no surprise that various bodies are making concerted efforts to maintain the Dartmoor Dunlin population. One of these major efforts, and I might add controversial, is the notorious (in some eyes) ‘Dartmoor Mires Project‘ which is being co-ordinated by the Dartmoor National Park Authority. The project partially involves blocking some natural drainage channels in specific areas of fen with peat which in theory stops the natural erosion process. The impact of this process is then monitored with regards to the water table and natural habitat. Alongside this monitoring process the RSPB were contracted in 2014 to carry out a bird survey of the northern bogs. These findings were then compared to a similar survey undertaken in 2010 along with two smaller ones of 2007 and 20013.

Probably much to the annoyance of those who disapprove of the Mires Project, the findings of this survey proved very encouraging as far as the Dunlin numbers go. It has been reported that there has been a thirty seven percent increase in territorial pairs over the past four years. In 2010 it was thought that there were sixteen pairs living on Dartmoor, in 2014 these numbers had increased to twenty two pairs. If one looks at the ‘restored’ sites, i.e. those that have been the subject of mire restoration, again the results are encouraging. At one site the numbers of breeding pairs had increased from two to three. At another they had increased from three to six and at a third a pair had been recorded for the first time. Needless to say these findings have been quickly used as ammunition in the debate as to whether or not the Mires project should have been instigated. The Dartmoor National Park Authorities Director of Conservation and Communities, Alison Kohler has commented that; “The project partners are really excited to see such a rapid response by our Dunlin population. This is a fantastic success story for the Dunlin (which particular Dunlin she does not say) and for the Dartmoor Mires Project.”

There is currently a five year action plan in place which has two main targets; firstly to ensure a favourable Dunlin habitat across all existing breeding sites. In addition there is an aim to expand the available habitat by thirty hectare by 2017 via efforts from the Mires Project. The second goal is to increase Dartmoor’s breeding population from twenty breeding pairs to twenty two by 2022. The methods used to achieve these targets are as follows:

Delivery and Monitoring Responsibility 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018
Hydrological restoration of the blanket bog through the mires project


Yes       Yes
Habitat management & restoration through appropriate grazing of the blanket bog. Natural England Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Regular (3 yearly) monitoring of Dunlin distribution and numbers RSPB & DNPA Yes     Yes  
Recreational event management to avoid sensitive areas, especially Ten Tors. MoD & DNPA Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Regular liaison with the MoD on key site avoidance in their training activities. MoD & DNPA Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes

One of the earliest records of the Dunlin or ‘Summer Lark‘ as it is also known in Devon, states that it was was spotted on Dartmoor along with a nest by one Dr. E. Moore in 1866, p.332. There is a mention in Rowe’s book of 1848 that Dunlins were; “Probably breeding in small numbers on Dartmoor.”, p.346. Another reference from Eliza bray in 1879 categorically states that the Dunlin breed on Dartmoor?

Ironically, although the Dunlin can be considered as a Dartmoor rarity they are in fact one of the commonest coastal waders.  In winter it is possible to see feeding flocks of around one thousand birds roosting in salt marshes and shorelines. Their preferred diet is one that consists of insects, worms and snails and their breeding season lies between April and July. They are ground nesting birds which I suppose is obvious when looking at Dartmoor blanket bog – not many other options there. The typical Dunlin clutch consists of four eggs which when hatched are left to the male bird to feed, after about three to four weeks they are airborne and self supporting.

One weird observation regarding the Dunlin is their close association with the Golden Plover, there are several accounts of a single Dunlin joining a flock of Plover or even accompanying single Plovers on feeding forays.


Because the Dunlin have been and are so rarely encountered on Dartmoor there is no folklore attached to them which is a shame. Maybe in future years when their numbers on Dartmoor have increased they will become a ‘legendary‘ success story for the various bodies concerned with their conservation?


D’urban, W.S.M. & Murray, A. M. 1892. The Birds of Devon. London: R. H. Porter.

Rowe, J. B. 1985. A Perambulation of Dartmoor. Exeter: Devon Books.


About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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