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Working together to save England’s declining Curlews

Logo: Curlew Recovery Partnership England

Introduction

Curlews are a familiar and much-loved species in England, whether that be restless flocks at a coastal estuary in winter or displaying birds over a remote upland moor in summer – they really are an integral part of our national landscape and soundscape. However, they are undergoing a catastrophic decline in many areas of the country, with whole breeding colonies quietly fading away and wintering numbers also falling steadily. Until recently this decline was very much under the radar, but recent research highlighting the decline means they are now a conservation priority in the UK.

Curlew (Tom Streeter)
Curlew (Tom Streeter)

Curlews are the unfortunate victims of many of the conservation challenges of our age, including development and habitat loss, intensification of agriculture (e.g. wetland drainage and early cutting of grass for silage), changes in upland land use (e.g. commercial afforestation and windfarms), artificially high predator numbers (e.g. foxes and crows), and increasing levels of recreational disturbance in some areas. Many of these issues affect Curlews in other European countries, which is where many of our wintering birds originate.

Overall, numbers in the UK have halved over the last two decades, and current estimates suggest about 30,000 breeding pairs remain in England. However, only 2% of these are in southern England, clinging on in a few remaining colonies, so the existing range is at risk of rapid contraction. The strongholds in the uplands show mixed trends, and some Curlews on upland moors are actually doing relatively well due to maintenance of suitable habitat and high levels of predator control. But worryingly, the overall trend in the uplands is also downwards.

Research is showing that the main issue is low productivity, basically meaning that not enough chicks are making it to fledging to sustain the population. Most eggs and chicks are taken by predators or destroyed by mechanised silage cutters, and in some colonies these pressures combine and have driven productivity to zero, year-after-year-after-year. Although Curlews are relatively long-lived birds, colonies can quickly fade away if older birds are not replaced by young recruits.

What is the Curlew Recovery Partnership?

Curlew chick (Tom Streeter)
Curlew chick (Tom Streeter)

The Curlew Recovery Partnership (CRP) is spearheaded by nine organisations with a commitment to Curlew conservation; these are: Bolton Castle Estate, British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), Curlew Action, Curlew Country, Duchy of Cornwall, Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), Natural England, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), and Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT). These organisations represent a wide range of interests, including farmers, land managers, gamekeepers, policymakers and researchers.

The CRP originated from two Curlew Recovery Summits hosted by His Royal Highness, The Prince of Wales, and is supported with pump-priming funding from Defra. The Chair is Mary Colwell, and I am the full-time Manager, hosted by Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT). The CRP launched on 01 March 2021 and has a dedicated website, blog and social media streams.

What are we doing?

A key aim of the CRP is to connect Curlew conservationists across England and to disseminate the latest news and resources – we want to empower those who want to help. Our network already contains nearly 200 contacts, ranging from enthusiastic individuals to major landowners and representatives of conservation NGOs. Our next step is to form regional hubs where we can connect people and direct our resources towards the most pressing issues in each region – this will commence with regional online Q&A sessions later this spring, with a view to holding some field-based meetings in spring 2022.

We are also developing and promoting resources to assist those wishing to engage in Curlew survey and monitoring, whether they be a keen beginner, a farmer or land manager, or an experienced ornithologist. These include the BTO Wader Calendar and our own Curlew Fieldworker Toolkit, supported by links to partner resources such as Curlew Cam and training videos.

Partnership logo

Finally, we will be engaging with policymakers to ensure that Curlew conservation is incorporated into future Agri-Environment Schemes and taken into account as we transition into major programmes of afforestation and coastal adaptation in response to mitigate climate change.

How can people get involved?

The first task for anyone interested in Curlew conservation is to sign up to our network (which is quick and free – just email us using the address below). This will then allow you to receive regular news updates and information about engagement activities, whether that be trying your hand at Curlew surveys, giving a presentation to your local community to raise awareness and help mitigate recreational pressure, or identifying volunteering and job opportunities.

Curlews need all the help they can get, and it’s important to remember that actions that help Curlews will have benefits for other species and habitats of open landscapes. To contact us email at hello@curlewrecovery.org or visit the CRP website at www.curlewrecovery.org.

Prof Russell Wynn, CRP Manager

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