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Classified as "least concern" on the IUCN Red List criteria, the global conservation concerns are relatively low because of the large numbers that breed in Scandinavia and the Arctic.However, the range in much of Europe is contracting because of land drainage, increased fertiliser use, the loss of mown or grazed breeding sites, and over-hunting.

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The ruff is a wader in the large family Scolopacidae, the typical shorebirds.Outside the breeding season, the typical male's head and neck decorations and the bare facial skin are lost and the legs and bill become duller.The upperparts are grey-brown, and the underparts are white with grey mottling on the breast and flanks.Females also develop a mix of winter and striped feathers before reaching their summer appearance.The final male breeding plumage results from the replacement of both winter and striped feathers, but the female retains the striped feathers and replaces only the winter feathers to reach her summer plumage.The striped prenuptial plumages may represent the original breeding appearance of this species, the male's showy nuptial feathers evolving later under strong sexual selection pressures.

Adult males and most adult females start their pre-winter moult before returning south, but complete most feather replacement on the wintering grounds.

In winter, her plumage is similar to that of the male, but the sexes are distinguishable on size.

Typical adult male ruffs start to moult into the main display plumage before their return to the breeding areas, and the proportion of birds with head and neck decorations gradually increases through the spring.

Second-year birds lag behind full adults in developing breeding plumage.

They have a lower body mass and a slower weight increase than full adults, and perhaps the demands made on their energy reserves during the migration flight are the main reason of the delayed moult.

Recent research suggests that its closest relatives are the broad-billed sandpiper, Calidris falcinellus, and the sharp-tailed sandpiper, Calidris acuminata.