The Plight of the Curlew

Words by Mary Colwell | Chair of Curlew Recovery Partnership England & Director of Curlew Action

Photo by: Damian Money

“There is something so ordinary, yet extraordinary about curlews – they are two-faced, magical birds that I love with a passion.”

Dependable and mercurial, they are both clockwork harbingers of the change of seasons, but also infuriatingly skittish and difficult to see when they arrive.

Plain and somewhat boring from a distance, on closer inspection they are subtly beautiful with an intricate patterning of grey, brown and cream feathers. Their gait manages to be elegant and gangly at the same time, even when wading up to their underparts in gloop they are part ballet dancer, part big-footed clown.

Curlews meld with their muddy, watery, moor-ish world; half-seen, never grubby, always welcomed. Britain’s largest wading birds embody duality with ease, and they carry their enigmas with a lightness of step.

Photo by: Tom Streeter

“Their call is an enchanting combination of major and minor keys that leaves us both joyful and full of yearning.”

There is more to them than their physical presence. When they open their long, downward curving bill and sing to the sky with an unmistakable bubbling, spiralling call, it is an enchanting combination of major and minor keys that leaves us both joyful and full of yearning.

It is not hard to put an aesthetic case for protecting the birds which the poet Ted Hughes described as having, “a wobbling water-call, a wet-footed god of the horizons”.

But (yes, here comes the but), it is not all poetry in the garden, as I am sure you are expecting. Any article on wildlife nowadays comes with the obligatory cry of doom from the conservationist in the corner, and this is no exception, so grab a manly tissue…

Curlews are indicators of the health of our countryside from the coasts to inland meadows and moors. They are birds that utilise whole landscapes, not just one habitat.

As they fly from their winter haunts along our coasts and estuaries to their spring and summertime breeding sites in both the uplands and lowlands, they are telling us what is happening to the land, whether all is well – or if something is seriously wrong.

“These magnificent birds are in a headlong rush to extinction as a breeding bird on our shores.”

Over the last 40 years there have been massive, sustained declines in the number of breeding curlews throughout the UK and Ireland.

The statistics are eye-wateringly awful. Southern Ireland has lost 97% of its breeding birds, down from 5000 pairs in the 1980s to around 130 today. In Northern Ireland there has been an 80% decline, the same for Wales, which may lose curlews as a breeding bird in less than 10 years. In Scotland there has been a 60% fall, and it is around 50% in England.

During my lifetime, curlews have been fading away, slipping from our consciousness year on year. By any measure, these magnificent birds are in a headlong rush to extinction as a breeding bird on our shores. It is particularly serious because the UK holds 30% of all the breeding curlews in Europe. That is one serious responsibility.

The reason behind the declines is simple, they are failing to produce enough chicks that survive to adulthood. They try very hard, they are not feathered pandas that need encouragement to copulate – they do that fine, but there are just too many pressures on them.

Grass cropping for silage to feed cows over the winter now happens multiple times a year, from as early as late April, which slices up nests and chicks.

Breeding areas are being lost to multiple causes, such as drainage to make land suitable for crops and livestock, for development or to plant commercial forests.

The eggs and chicks are being predated at an unsustainably high level, mainly by foxes and crows (which we have a lot of in the UK). In some areas, 90% of the eggs are eaten in the first few days after laying.

“The upland moors and rough grasslands are more curlew-friendly than the intensively farmed lowlands.”

Britain is not a friendly place for curlews or other ground-nesting birds. Those that do survive the killing fields in the breeding season and manage to fledge, do very well, adult survival is excellent. It is the crucial breeding season that is the issue.

It is not all despair though; some areas are better than others. The upland moors and rough grasslands are more curlew-friendly than the intensively farmed lowlands, and this is where, come the spring, you are most likely to hear that fabulous call.

Ed and brant, founders of Hebtroco, are part of the curlew appreciation society and love to hear them. Being based in Hebden bridge, the curlews’ spring time bubbling over the surrounding moors brings news that change is in the air and it is time to step out and soak in a strengthening sun and a fresh breeze (best done in high-quality clothing). Curlews lift the heart and spirit, show the earth is turning and that wildness is still a feature of life, even though it is fragile. I’d like to thank Hebtroco for loving curlews, for making their heartfelt and real film about them and the moors they depend upon, and for giving a shout out to Curlew Action. We are doing our bit by raising awareness, helping local projects to protect eggs and chicks and by reaching out to the next generation. I am also chair of the Curlew Recovery Partnership England, a roundtable of organisations that are working hard to help curlews throughout the country.

“We will do what we can, and we won’t stop trying, because some things are just too precious to let go.”

Everyone can do something, even if it is just going to out see them, falling in love with this stilty-legged, long-beaked bird, then shouting about them from the rooftops. You will find people don’t think you are totally mad; they may even join you.

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