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What is a Nightjar?

The nightjar is a bird and a traditional heathland species. It arrives in England in April and May from it’s wintering grounds in Africa and nests on the ground on heathland and in young conifer plantations. It is difficult to see because it is nocturnal and cryptically camouflaged in greys and browns, so is best seen at dusk when it appears falcon-like in silhouette against the night sky. However, it is most easily identified by the churring song and the odd claps of wings which the male nightjar makes as he displays to attract nearby females.

Why is the Nightjar important to the Surrey Hills?

The nightjar is protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) and its UK conservation status is Amber.  Southern England holds internationally important numbers of this species and Surrey holds 4% of the national population. Habitat loss has led to significant overall declines in some areas though the range is generally expanding now as a result of conservation initiatives and the maturation and harvesting of post-war conifer plantations.

Nightjar by Mark Crisp

Image with thanks to Mark Crisp, Warden at RSPB Farnham Heath

What habitat does the Nightjar like?


Lowland heathland is a habitat of outstanding importance for its range of nationally and internationally rare or endangered species. These ancient, open landscapes are generally found on poor, acid, sandy soils less than 300 metres above sea level. They are characterised by dwarf shrubs of the heather family.

What can be done to benefit the Nightjar?

Good heathland management for this species will create/result in a mosaic of heathland habitats which should include a good proportion of mature heather with small gaps for nesting, scattered trees for song-posts and insect-rich feeding areas such as areas of wet heath. Disturbance from humans and dogs should be minimised. This will benefit a wide range of other heathland species such as Dartford warbler, stonechat, grayling, reptiles and the large moths and beetles on which the nightjar feeds.

Opportunities to create/improve/extend suitable habitat for this species include:
  • Grazing by hardy livestock breeds to control scrub and dominant grasses
  • Regenerating heather by controlled burning, cutting or turf stripping but retaining 10 – 20% mature heather
  • Clearing scrub and controlling its regrowth
  • Selective thinning of trees including mature conifer plantations
  • Managing drainage to conserve areas of wet heath
  • Managing fire risk
  • Managing disturbance, especially during the breeding season

Mechanised bracken control should be avoided where nightjars might be nesting.


Creating and managing areas for the Nightjar will help deliver the following benefits to communities:
  • Clean water
  • Clean air
  • Protection from and mitigation of environmental hazards
  • Mitigation of and adaptation to climate change
  • Thriving plants and wildlife
  • Beauty, heritage and engagement

These illustrations are by an artist taking part in a programme delivered by Watts Gallery Trust and funded by the Michael Varah Memorial Fund. This series of 30 Surrey Hills Indicator Species were commissioned by Surrey Hills Society and funded by Surrey Hills Trust Fund as part of the Making Space for Nature Exhibition.