'Headstarted' curlews released at Sandringham Estate


A number of Eurasian Curlews were released at the Sandringham Estate on Tuesday [27 July], as part of a Natural England-led project to boost populations of the rapidly declining wader in the east of England.

HRH The Prince of Wales joined Natural England Chair, Tony Juniper, to oversee the release, which is the result of a summer of hard work to raise the chicks in captivity via a process known as 'headstarting'.

The project collected 147 eggs from eight military and civilian airfields across England, where nesting curlews presented a serious risk to air safety. A total of 106 were transported to a new purpose-built rearing facility at Pensthorpe Conservation Trust (PCT) in Norfolk, with 41 taken by the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) for a project in Dartmoor. Experts at PCT and WWT used their skills to ensure as many as the eggs as possible hatched, then reared them to fledging age to be released.

Several of the headstarted Eurasian Curlews to be released at Sandringham Estate (Martin Hayward-Smith).

Eurasian Curlew is Europe's largest wader and is now Red-listed, meaning it is of the highest conservation priority, needing urgent action. The UK is home to roughly a quarter of the global breeding population – some 58,500 pairs – but the species has suffered very significant declines since the 1970s due to loss of habitat and predation, with lowland England experiencing some of the most severe decreases.

The releases aim to expand an existing breeding population of Eurasian Curlew in Breckland, where too few chicks are being produced in the wild each year to maintain a stable population. Some of the birds have been fitted with GPS or radio tags by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), so that their progress can be monitored in the weeks and months ahead. More than 80 young curlews will be released at Sandringham and nearby Wild Ken Hill.

Tony Juniper said: "Curlews have suffered significant declines over the past 40 years and their plight now presents one of England's most pressing conservation challenges. A range of actions will be needed to restore these wonderful birds and we hope that the translocation of curlews at this large scale, a method that has never been tried before, will make a real difference to the population in the east of England.

"Today's release on the Sandringham Estate marks a significant milestone for the recovery of this iconic bird. We're proud to be leading such an innovative project, which will not only improve the prospects of curlew in Norfolk, but will help inform action to recover curlew across England. It is a fine example of the kinds of partnerships that will be needed to achieve nature recovery more widely and as such we hope will be an inspiration for much more of the same."

Dominic Buscall, Project Manager at Wild Ken Hill, added: "We're delighted to be involved in this vital national effort to recover one of our most beloved and threatened birds. This is a large project with many great organisations working together - our contribution at Wild Ken Hill is to provide the headstarted young curlew excellent habitat and safety from predators. We hope they can survive to link up with the hundreds of adult birds that usually spend the winter here."

Dr James Robinson, Director of Conservation at the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT), commented: "The rapid disappearance of curlew from southern England is incredibly sad and a clear indication that we need to change the way we are looking after our landscapes. We are delighted to be part of this ambitious project and that WWT's pioneering work on headstarting this iconic species is being used to safeguard the future of these remaining curlew breeding areas."