Curlew Country? Guest blog by Amanda Perkins

By Amanda Perkins, Curlew Country Project Manager

Across the UK, curlews have been on the move from their coastal and estuarine over-wintering grounds to breed in grassland and moorland.  This iconic species with its evocative bubbling call can live for over 25 years, Its Latin name Numenius Arquata refers to the curved shape of a curlew bill, like that of an archer’s bow or a new moon.

Unlike the moon however the curlew population is not waxing, just waning.  Britain holds over 25% of the Eurasian curlew population but it is rapidly declining (estimates of 75% losses in Shropshire since 1990, 46% across the UK from 1994-2010 and now internationally threatened).

Curlew By AV Cross

Curlew Country is a wader recovery project in Shropshire and the Welsh Marches.  It is one of 14 projects that make up the Stiperstones and Corndon Landscape Partnership Scheme (Heritage Lottery funded and managed by local partners with the lead partner being the Shropshire Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, hosted by Shropshire Council).

The Curlew Country landscape includes moorland in the hillier areas and grassland in both the hills and river valleys with some arable areas in between.  Most of the farmers the project works with have beef and sheep enterprises with a few dairy farms interspersed.  The local population of around 40 pairs of curlew are site faithful, and nest in grassland.

The original focus of the project was to engage farmers in discussion about improved habitat management for waders and to encourage them into agri-environment schemes.  Farmers and land managers who were approached were weary of what they saw as ‘another conservationist coming up their drive to talk with them about how to do their work’, and although mainly polite, freely expressed their opinion that there was no point in managing habitat differently if waders were going to be predated in any case.

This provided the ideal opportunity for the Curlew Country project to re-design the pre Landscape Partnership Scheme concept of how the project would work and to change the priorities and focus from imposition upon farmers and land managers to partnership with them. 

Curlew EggsA small technical Project Advisory Group was formed and this group supported by national conservation organisations helped shape the nest monitoring project that then followed with the purpose of discovering why curlew are failing to breed successfully in the Curlew Country area.

During the last two seasons, with the support of local farmers and landowners, over 30 nests have been closely monitored by cameras and heat sensitive buttons (thermacrons).  Chicks have been monitored via radio tags, but none of them have survived to fledge successfully. Most of the nests have been predated at egg stage, mainly by foxes, although a few have been predated by badgers.

Each year one or two nests have been abandoned and last season one nest was trampled and the eggs were partly eaten by sheep, another was trampled by cattle and about three nests were lost to agricultural activities.  The project’s farming partners feel attached to ‘their’ curlews and help all that they can to protect the nests and chicks, but if a nest site cannot be found they cannot withhold farming activities from one, two or even three fields that are being observed.

The chicks that have hatched have been too few and have mainly been taken too far out of signal range of the surviving defeated parent birds to give a realistic indication of what the main predators may be at chick stage.

Curlew ChickIn 2016, the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust advised Curlew Country of a similar project being run by Natalie Meyer of NABU in Schleswig Holstein, which was trialling electric fencing around curlew nests. 

In the Curlew Country area only three nests have survived beyond egg stage each year. In 2016 the three nests that survived were those on which the protective electric fencing was trialled.  Whilst not sustainable in the longer term, this method is now urgently needed to help the project achieve higher egg survival to hatching stage, so that the project can move on to discovering what the chicks need to survive up until fledging.

Curlew Country is focussed entirely upon wader recovery, with curlews taking the centre ground and without wider obligations it has the flexibility to act quickly both in terms of monitoring and subsequent intervention based on findings. This has also enabled it to progress quickly in a short space of time.

Fox control is being trialled this year on two sites. Whilst lethal fox control has existed on an un-structured basis in the area, with GWCT and BASC advice and training, the project aims to bring more rigour to this practice to raise standards and achieve greater effectiveness in nest protection.  Other interventions will be trialled as appropriate.

This is a project at the heart of the community.  A local Community Wildlife Group flagged up the problem of declining wader populations through diligent surveying of adult bird populations according to British Trust for Ornithology methodology. Many local children have never heard or heard of a curlew and young farmers with curlews nesting or foraging on their land report the same of their peers.

Arts projects, funded from a separate source, have helped to raise awareness of the plight of curlews in an engaging way and in return locals have been inspired to set up small fundraising initiatives to help the project that needs a great deal more funding than the initial £13,000 allocated to it, especially as many funding bodies will not consider a project undertaking predation control as an element of its work.

A farm business manager is working with Curlew Country farming partners to establish the true costs of supporting breeding curlew on land occupied by different types of farming enterprises, so that this can be fed back to policy makers. Farmers want to deliver good outcomes for waders, but sustainability will depend upon realistic financial support and deliverable agri-environment scheme initiatives.

In the north curlew benefit from grouse moor management and the RSPB has a curlew recovery project on upland sites.  In the south, there are a number of small volunteer led projects and some local NGO initiatives, trying to reverse dramatic curlew decline, but there is no overall support for saving these birds.

CurlewUrgent monitoring and short-term intervention measures are needed, but in the medium to longer term population monitoring, nest protection and habitat provision are all likely to be needed until curlew breeding success rises.  Farmers and land managers are the key to sustainability and must be at the heart of any initiative taken to save lowland curlew.

The call of the curlew evokes an emotional response from those whom have heard it but more widespread and pragmatic funding and action will be needed if we want to a country in which curlews can thrive.  The alternative will be curtain call for curlews outside large, well-managed, mainly upland estates and reserves.  

For more information about the Curlew Country project, please visit www.stiperstonesandcorndon.co.uk/curlewcountry/

Help the GWCT understand what is driving the decline in curlew

We know that curlew have been doing badly over much of their British range for some time, but very little is known about exactly where our curlew are – particularly in the lowlands. Without this information, it is almost impossible to know how best to kickstart their recovery. If you have, or have had, curlew on your land, please let us know by clicking here.


Inappropriate afforestation

at 14:37 on 15/05/2017 by Rhian Pierce

The inappropriate afforestation of areas is also a cause of the Curlews demise. It can cause direct habitat loss when planting occurs on breeding and feeding habitat. It also provides more habitat for more predators especially in the uplands where they wouldn't normally have been found. Predation should therefore be something future agri env and woodland planting schemes consider.

Curlew declines

at 13:32 on 11/04/2017 by Jean Roberts

If farmers aren't willing to manage habitat for Curlews then all the predator control in the world isn't going to save them. Curlews need food (soil invertebrates) and they need cover (rushes/longer grass) for nesting - both of which require appropriate habitat management to supply and that involves reducing stock numbers and keeping chemicals put on the land to a minimum. I'm not trying to get at farmers - they have a living to make. I'm also not against predator control but it needs to be done in tandem with habitat management otherwise it is a waste of time and good money. So unless there is financial incentive from government to farm in an "old-fashioned way" (as one Welsh farmer put it) then we will inevitably see further declines in Curlews.


at 8:00 on 05/04/2017 by Phil Fairless

No wonder curlews are declining in Northumberland at least, when so many wind turbines have been built on their nesting grounds. About 3 years ago my wife and I saw a curlew being hit by a turbine blade at Wingates, Northumberland, killing it stone dead. Some time later we saw a buzzard meeting its end in the same way at the same site. The RSPB weren't interested. Anecdotal evidence suggests some landowners regularly sweep up all the dead birds from under the turbines which wouldn't be a surprise at all. The number of buzzards and magpies etc has rocketed and they all predate on ground nesting birds. The curlew will sadly continue to decline unless the authorities and armchair conservationists wake up and that isn't going to happen any time soon.


at 18:49 on 04/04/2017 by Lawrence Banks

We used to have a reasonable number of curlew nesting on Hergest Ridge Common where I am the Lord of the Manor and land owner. we now have few if any though we did hear them last year. We have a Countryside higher level stewardship scheme with emphasis on ground nesting birds. We are inclined to think that the decline or disappearance is due to a large increase in badger numbers as fox control is pretty good. The idea of hedge.hog predation is a joke as all our hedgehogs have been destroyed by badgers! We would be delighted to collaborate with your work.in South Shropshire

Curlew rescue

at 17:41 on 04/04/2017 by John Walker

Given that all the nests are being lost and the population is not replacing itself action is obviously urgent. Would it be possible to remove the first clutch of eggs and rear with incubators and then release back to their home range or a place that is protected from predators when they are 3/4 grown? The parent birds could then go on to have a second clutch which could be helped with electric fences etc.

Curlew Predation

at 16:33 on 04/04/2017 by Desmond Gunner

It is clear from your research that Curlews construct nests and lay eggs successfully, but that virtually all of them fail, due to predation of either eggs or fledgelings. If none survived of the 30 nests monitored, then predator control is 100% the most important action. All your efforts at conservation are fruitless unless you can prevent predation. You say that Foxes are the main culprits and that efforts to cull them are being made, but these must be greatly enhanced now that hunting them is banned. However, you also say that Badgers predate and these are legally protected and are greatly increasing, so that they will take the place of Foxes as the main predator. They are no longer "endangered" and their protection is no longer justified. It would be interesting to know whether Curlews are successful in areas where Badger Culling has been carried out.?

Curlew nests

at 11:55 on 04/04/2017 by frank stevens

Fox & badger are a menace to ground nesters - but Hedgehogs also enjoy eating eggs.

Make a comment

Cookie Policy

Our website uses cookies to provide you with a better online experience. If you continue to use our site without changing your browser settings, we'll assume you are happy to receive cookies. Please read our cookie policy for more information.

Do not show this message again