Saving Britain's biggest wader


Dartmoor sparkled in the crisp June dawn. It bathed the ancient granite tors and gorse-clad moorland in a fresh light. This landscape is more akin to the Peak District than gentle Devon. At nearly 1,500 m, this is the uplands of southern England. The sprinkling of frost on Haytor car park was a reminder that there is a long cross fade between winter and spring at this altitude; but the clacking of European Stonechats and the lyricism of Eurasian Skylarks proved that new life was well and truly blossoming.

Naturalist John Walters and I scanned the boggy ground for signs of Eurasian Curlew. He pointed to a marshy area below the car park where they usually try to nest, but there was no soaring or trilling in the cold air, no characteristic bubbling call tumbling over the landscape. Neither could we find a crouched bird on four precious eggs that are laid straight into a scrape in the ground.

The UK's breeding curlews are of international importance, estimated to represent more than 30 per cent of the total west European population (Robin Chittenden).


Curlew found

We walked across the road and climbed higher to get a better view and soon heard them. A male was curlee-ing and charging towards another, wings outstretched as he raced at his rival. His bill looked like a knight's lance. The interloper retreated but didn't fly away. This sparring, though, had no urgency, it was merely show fighting. The female seemed unconcerned and carried on feeding with the air of a bird whose work was done.

"Looks like they have failed again," said John. "But it's no surprise; Dartmoor has only produced three chicks in the last 12 years and there is no guarantee these birds will keep coming back; it's the only active nest now."

It was hard to process that information. Dartmoor, with all its moor and rough pasture, used to house curlews in good numbers, especially around Postbridge, a boggy area to the west of Haytor that sits in a basin surrounded by higher ground. But those pairs went in the last few years, leaving only the birds in front of us to come back regularly; one female and a couple of males. They must be getting old now. Even though curlews can live for 30 years, most probably don't. Who knows when the last Dartmoor breeding season will be?

As a ground-nesting species, Eurasian Curlew is particularly vulnerable to predation and damage. Four eggs are laid in a scrape in the ground (David Kjaer / www.davidkjaer.com).

The main problems are those of a popular tourist spot. Well over 2 million people visit Dartmoor each year and disturbance from day-trippers, dog-walkers and even over-zealous wildlife photographers is common. If the birds are scared off the nest, the eggs are highly vulnerable to predation. There are many foxes and crows thriving on the food left by picnickers and the spoils of agriculture. The predation pressure is high, and one pair can't defend its nest from constant assault. Sheep graze the area, too, and they are known to eat eggs. There is just too much going on in this honeypot beauty-spot for birds that need peace.

That sad encounter was in 2015, one year before I set out on a 500-mile walk across Ireland, Wales and England to find out why Eurasian Curlew is slipping into oblivion. What I found was that vast areas of Britain and Ireland are hostile to our largest wading bird. We have created a landscape of killing fields that has seen its range dwindle and numbers fall to a fraction of what they once were.

In the Republic of Ireland, for example, more than 5,000 pairs nested across the bogs and rough fields in the 1980s; today this is closer to 125 pairs, with just a handful of nests dotted here and there, mainly in the west. Throughout the whole of Wales there are no more than 400 pairs, and probably fewer than that. In southern England, below a line from The Wash to Shrewsbury, only 300 pairs remain in a scattering of hot-spots, the best areas being Gloucestershire, the New Forest, Breckland, Salisbury Plain, West Sedgemoor and Shrewsbury.

Estimates for northern England and Scotland are, to my mind, out of date. The official number of breeding pairs in the UK is put at 66,000, thought to be about 25 per cent of the total breeding population. If that figure still holds then the northern part of the UK must house many tens of thousands of pairs, which is unlikely, especially as Scotland has recorded a 60 per cent decline in the species over the last 20 years.

Intensive agriculture such as sheep grazing (above) and huge fields of crops are among the several drivers of the huge declines in curlew numbers (Andrew Fusek Peters).


Breeding failure

Even more concerning than sheer numbers is the breeding productivity; this is virtually zero in many places. Predation pressure and unsympathetic farming methods combine to see few, if any, eggs survive to hatching and only a small number of chicks live beyond a week or two. In southern England, in the 2018 breeding season, just six chicks are known to have fledged from 258 nests. The actual figure may be better than that as in some areas the fate of chicks could not be confirmed, but it won't be much higher.

Where detailed studies have been done, for example in Shropshire, the reasons behind the decline are clear. In both 2015 and 2016 a Landscape Partnership Scheme called Curlew Country monitored a total of 32 nests in the Stiperstones region. Some nests were observed with cameras and any chicks that survived were radio-tagged.

The awful reality is that out of those 32 nests, not one chick fledged – all were either eaten (mainly by foxes and crows), killed by early mowing, trampled by sheep or squashed by farm vehicles. Being long-lived birds, they return each year, usually to the same field, but no young are surviving to replace older birds as they fail to come back. If this situation is replicated across the county, which seems likely, then the figures that are emerging today, as we look more closely, come as no surprise. Up until 1990, the British Trust for Ornithology's Breeding Bird Atlas records around 700 pairs of curlews across Shropshire. By 2010 no more than 160 pairs remained – a catastrophic decline of 77 per cent.

Curlew Country found that in the Stiperstones area of Shropshire in both 2015 and 2016 only three nests out of more than the 30 monitored survived beyond egg stage to hatch chicks (Andrew Fusek Peters).

As I followed my route across Ireland and Britain in the spring of 2016 it became obvious what was happening. In southern Ireland, the 99 per cent decline in breeding curlew numbers has been caused by the rapid intensification of agriculture to boost the country's booming dairy industry. When this was combined with the wholescale destruction of the inland raised bogs to provide improved fields, fuel for peat-fired power stations and Sitka spruce plantations, the writing was on the wall for Irish curlews.

In Wales, the headage payments of the 1980s, where farmers were paid by the number of sheep they grazed on the hills, saw a varied landscape turn into what George Monbiot called a 'sheep-wreck'. Damp, rough fields with varied sward height and food-rich soils were grazed and trampled into smooth, impoverished landscapes. In southern England agriculture became fast paced and efficient. Silage replaced hay cutting and fields were drained. In eastern England, vast fields of monocultures sprout from rock-hard soils which are devoid of insects. Ground-probing waders and their tiny, insect-eating chicks cannot thrive there.


Doing better

Up on the less intensive landscapes of our northern moorlands and mountains, especially in areas were predators are controlled and habitats managed, the species fares better, but just how much is not known for certain. The uplands are the traditional strongholds for curlews, but there are few conservation schemes that are solely focused on them. The RSPB Trial Management Project is an exception.

This five-year programme (now possibly being extended) is concentrating on six paired sites across the northern uplands of the UK. Each area is around 10 square kilometres. One site undertakes active habitat management and the control of foxes and crows, the other is left for comparison.

The RSPB wants to wait until the completion of the trial to publish the results, but when it does these will undoubtedly shed light on the upland situation. Does habitat management and predator control increase breeding success? The answer can't come soon enough. Patrick Laurie is a journalist and hill farmer in Galloway in southern Scotland and has seen no chicks fledge from his rough grazing land at all over the last eight years.

Chicks are an increasingly rare sight – ever fewer curlew eggs are surviving to hatching (Jim Almond).

So, what to do? The obvious next step when I returned was to get everyone together. If this situation is to be turned around, all those working on curlews from across the conservation spectrum must pull together. I instigated a series of four Curlew Workshops, one in each country. They presented the facts from scientists and people working on the ground and then invited solutions from the audience. It was interesting to see that each workshop produced a different result, reflecting the diversity of cultures and ways of doing things across the UK and Ireland.

In Ireland, a Curlew Task Force was established after the meeting. Government funded and organised, it concentrates teams in six key breeding areas which are known to hold around two thirds of the remaining nest sites. Although 2018 was a difficult year everywhere because of the weather – a long, cold winter with the infamous Beast from the East, which turned quickly into a hot, dry summer – some success was recorded. Even so, only 19 chicks are thought to have fledged and the number of pairs found in key areas further declined.

The England workshop was held at Slimbridge, Gloucestershire, in February 2017 and it established the Curlew Forum, a supportive network of the various groups already working on their local populations. The forum helps make connections and provides information across the disparate curlew groups consisting of individuals, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), birders and wildlife societies. This is ground-up, local, passionate conservation and it is growing and strengthening. The website (www.curlewcall.org) acts as the focal point. It is a new way of doing things – welcoming anyone but dominated by no one.

Curlew Cwymru is now up and running in Wales and organising action through a round table of organisations consisting of the BTO, RSPB, British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC), Countryside Alliance, National Resources Wales, Gamekeepers Association, Welsh Ornithological Society and Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust. Work is being planned across three broad regions: north, central and southern Wales. It is early days, but there is a real sense of co-operation and determination between the groups.

The last workshop was held in Scotland in September 2018 and it brought together so many ideas that had been expressed over the last two years. The fledgling group Working for Waders, instigated by Scottish Natural Heritage in 2017, is now gearing up for more concentrated effort on curlews this coming breeding season.

The Breeding Bird Survey indicated an overall UK decline of 42 per cent between 1995 and 2000 in the Eurasian Curlew population (Oliver Smart / www.smartimages.co.uk).


Challenges ahead

Similar themes ran through all the meetings, namely that curlews will only thrive if we are honest and open about the challenges they face and work together to tackle them. Carrying out meaningful and robust science, restoring habitat and controlling predators while the landscapes across Ireland and Britain are made whole again will undoubtedly be fraught with conflict. But a way has to be found. As Professor Steve Redpath put it so eloquently: "The most fruitful way forward is likely to be through investing in building collaborative partnerships where you can deliberate and debate with those you disagree with and decide what the priorities and actions should be. Such approaches are not easy – they require energy, time, trust, a willingness to engage and debate with those you disagree with, to listen and to empathise. They also require humility."

Some 500 miles and four workshops later, I feel curlews are in a better place, but I am under no illusion about how much needs to be done to restore their world; nothing less than a resetting of our mindset about how we use our landscapes for farming and leisure. But, if we make Britain and Ireland more curlew friendly, we will undoubtedly help many other species that require a less fragmented, more nuanced and varied countryside, where predator and prey are in balance once more and there is an abundance of life around every corner.

The beautiful and haunting call of the curlew is a clarion call to all of us to act now, and act quickly.

Written by: Mary Colwell