Curlew – when will Defra act?

By Andrew Gilruth, GWCT Communications & Membership Director

If we want to stop the curlew going the way of many other birds, such as the corncrake and the nightjar, we are going to need Defra to allow landowners to resume protecting the curlew’s young on their most important English breeding grounds – just as they can in Scotland and Wales.

These sites have been designated as Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas by Defra. However, having given them the highest level of legal protection – this red-tape is now preventing conservationists from protecting birds in them. With today being World Curlew Day, perhaps Defra might announce a resumption of their protection in England?   

What is the problem?

On the curlew’s most important breeding grounds in England, Defra is preventing all control of species such as carrion crows to protect vulnerable curlew chicks – despite knowing the importance of this protection.

With one of the groups that advises the government, JNCC, stating that “the curlew is the UK’s most pressing bird conservation priority” and the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) reporting that the carrion crow has “increased consistently since the 1960s”, surely it’s time for Defra to reinstate last year’s Individual Licences before another curlew breeding season is lost?

Will any reduction of chick protection contribute to curlew in crisis?

Yes. The overall problem is low breeding success, not poor adult survival. Across Europe the decline is well researched, and here in the UK Eurasian curlew numbers have dropped 46% in 25 years. What do we need to do? Protect the young.

A large review of scientific studies across Europe found that breeding success was so low that over 70% of nests between 1996-2006 were not able to hatch a single chick. Of those chicks that hatched, only half survived until they were able to fly. This is the reason the RSPB and other conservation groups kill crows to protect curlew. A point we have been willing to help the RSPB defend, despite the negative press coverage here.

Has Defra ever acknowledged the importance of protecting curlew chicks?

Yes. At the end of a Westminster debate on the decline of the curlew, three years ago, Dr Therese Coffey MP gave Defra’s response. This contained a commitment that predator control will now be included in all “current and future projects”.

Sadly, this has yet to happen. Instead the words of Richard Benyon, the MP that called the debate, remain just as true: “We should stop funding curlew conservation projects that do not include effective predator control options. We have to do what works, not what is popular.”


Do these special protection areas for some bird species still exist?

Yes. Defra oversees both the protection of our high-quality habitat through Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and birds through Special Protection Areas (SPAs). This is why so many grouse moors have received these legal designations: they are some of the places with the most wildlife.

However, the 2020 conservation General Licence, in England, stipulates it can’t be used on these conservation sites of highest value. Last year Defra addressed this through the issue of Individual Licences, but this has not yet happened for this breeding season. Surely it makes sense to ensure English curlew chicks are as protected as those in Scotland and Wales?

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Curlew conservation

at 12:19 on 21/04/2020 by Christopher Land

Please don't forget that in Scotland the ongoing trashing of moorland habitats at the behest of the tree lobby is also leading to large scale reductions in population and range. Two years ago I witnessed Curlew, Lapwing and Snipe flying over newly planted trees where blackcock displayed amongst the upturned divots of peat on the ground. All this not 15 miles from Holyrood where the dreadful loss of our wildlife has been sanctioned. It is no good shooting crows when governments are as hell bent on destroying moorlands as the Scottish government is.


at 10:15 on 21/04/2020 by Ailsa Farrand

I've been watching crows harassing curlew this morning while they are looking for nesting sights, what hope for successful rearing of chicks if there is no corvid control?

Protection of Red and Amber listed birds on SSSI,s and SPA,s

at 8:29 on 21/04/2020 by Phillip Walker

What you highlight here will surprise many people who read your publications. Since SSSI,s and SPA,s were intended to protect habitats and the species that occupy them it beggars belief that in the last two years it has been difficult - if not impossible to obtain consent under the General Licence to control the Carrion Crow Magpies and certain gulls who impact significantly on the eggs and young of the Curlew Lapwing and other red and amber listed birds. Springtime and early summer is the period in which theseand other small birds, to say nothing of Red and Black Grouse nest and raise their brood. It is a period when their future is best ensured and where we have an opportunity to control corvids. Shooting and the use of the Larsen and cage traps disrupt the corvids activities in a short window of time.. Most SPA,s certainly in my area of Yorkshire run contiguous to SSSI,s and since this land is often fields, allotments and other by-lands it is used in the spring for lambing and early grazing. Carrion Crows are a real problem to sheep farmers at this time of the year, injuring yews in difficulty, and attacking new born lambs particularly where yews have twins or triplets. Given the habitats status you cannot get a licence at this time. It flys in the face of common sense. Some of the grounds that others have relied upon to find objection to such licences being granted stem from Europe. All legislation is underpinned by three golden words a member country relies on to exercise there own laws, and indeed those originating in Europe. They are: 1. Is the action lawful. 2. Is it necessary. 3. Is it proportionate. All these areas are easily addressed and evidenced in your piece today. We have the laws, control is a necessity and it is proportionate. NE should be able to see this. Unless they take prompt action another year will pass when they have failed in their statutory duty. Look at just about every bird survey and over the years the corvids are growing in number and the smaller birds dwindling.. Respectfully. Phillip GP Walker

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