Eurasian Curlews released on the Sandringham Estate - Natural England

Photo credit: Martin Hayward Smith
Photo credit: Martin Hayward Smith

HRH The Prince of Wales and NE Chair, Tony Juniper, attend the release of Eurasian curlews at Sandringham Estate.

HRH The Prince of Wales was joined by Natural England’s Chair, Tony Juniper, on the Sandringham Estate today (Tuesday 27 July) to release of one of the country’s most iconic threatened species – the Eurasian curlew – following an innovative Natural England-led partnership project to boost populations in the East of England.

The curlew is Europe’s largest wading bird 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 of curlew – 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 declines.

The project collected 147 eggs from airfields, where nesting curlew presented a serious risk to air safety. 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. The experts at PCT and WWT used their skills to ensure as many as the eggs as possible hatched into chicks, and were reared to fledging age to be released.

The partnership project with the Defence Infrastructure Organisation and the Royal Air Force collected eggs at a total of eight military and civilian airfields across England, rearing the birds so they are ready for release into the right habitats for them to thrive. Over 80 chicks are now available for release at the two Norfolk release sites; Sandringham Estate and Wild Ken Hill.

The releases aim to expand an existing breeding population of curlew in Breckland, creating a new curlew nature recovery network. Some of the birds have been fitted with GPS or radio tags by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), so we can continue to monitor their progress after they are released, gathering information on their dispersal, habitat use and survival.

Natural England Chair, 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.”

Airfields provide the kind of open grassland habitat preferred by ground-nesting curlew, but due to the dangers to air safety posed by curlew nests close to runways, eggs were - until Natural England’s project began - destroyed to prevent the, potentially catastrophic, risk of collision between birds and aircraft.

This new project, funded by Defra and Natural England, builds on a local and national partnership already in place between Natural England, Defra, Pensthorpe Conservation Trust, the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, British Trust for Ornithology, the Sandringham Estate, the Ken Hill Estate, Defence Infrastructure Organisation, the RAF, Army Flying Service and USAF, bird control contractors such as NBC Environment and the Zoological Society of London.

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