Curlew Conservation: it is not about the birds

Logo: Curlew Action

By Ellen Bradley, General Manager

Curlew standing profile on a rock
(Helen Ryman)

“Conservation, viewed in its entirety, is the slow and laborious unfolding of a new relationship between people and land” - Aldo Leopold, 1940

I think of Aldo’s words often. When I first started working in curlew conservation, I naively thought that it would be about curlews. I was wrong. Protecting curlew, like so much of conservation, is about people. Curlews are caught in the crossfire of many of the controversies that sway across our landscapes: predator control, grouse moors, intensive forestry, intensive farming and recreational disturbance to name a few. Each of these topics engage a variety of impassioned stakeholders with their own values be it passions for our hobbies, pets, business, lifestyle, love of a certain species. Holding different opinions is part of being human, but they can quickly fall into arguments, which is damaging. I am at the very early stages of my career in conservation and working with curlews has been an eye-opening experience, offering insight into the diversity of opinions and people who play a role in the protection of a much-loved species. Being a part of the Curlew Action team has given Aldo’s words a real-world context that I will carry with me for the rest of my career.

Curlew walking among tall wildflowers
(Tony Pope)

At 26 years old at the time of writing, my lifetime has seen curlew numbers halve across the UK. This rapid decline is down to their low productivity levels. If a curlew reaches adulthood, they have a very good chance of survival and can live for over a decade, some individuals have achieved over three! Sadly, the majority of young birds do not make it to fledging. To maintain the current population, a pair of curlews must fledge one chick every two years, but even this modest feat is not being met. Ornithologist Graham Appleton, crunched the numbers in a now well-quoted blog post, finding that to maintain our current population, curlews must fledge an extra 10,000 chicks per year. The suite of difficult issues that a curlew conservationist faces reflects the range of pressures experienced by the birds themselves. Though it is difficult to lay the decline of curlews at the door of a single issue in particular, the fading of their call from our countryside can largely be attributed to high predation levels and early and frequent silage cuts. Nesting on the ground makes curlew chicks and eggs vulnerable to the generalist mesopredators such as foxes and crows that thrive in our highly managed landscape. Nesting in wide open spaces away from trees often leaves curlew nests at the mercy of an agricultural system which ticks to a different clock than a breeding curlew. Following WW2 and the associated drive to become more self-sufficient in our food production, the UK began to increase the use of silage as fodder for cattle. Silage is cut much earlier in the season than hay and at more regular intervals. These cuts coincide with the curlew breeding season and chicks and eggs are often caught up in farm machinery. Add to these pressures the planting of small patches of trees in curlew breeding areas, which exacerbates the risk of predation; recreational disturbance from inquisitive dogs and off-path walkers; building developments in dwindling breeding habitat and the emerging pressures of an insect apocalypse and a changing climate, and it is a wonder any curlew chicks survive.

A curlew in flight
(Brydon Thomason)

Yet some do fledge, and despite the odds the breeding season is always a time of renewed hope for curlew conservationists. When I use the phrase “curlew conservationists” I am not only referring to the fieldworkers and scientists working to monitor the birds, included are the landowners, farmers, land managers, local people, artists, writers, musicians and poets who work to raise awareness about the plight of the curlew. The protection of this species touches so many aspects of life in the UK that we are all, in part, curlew conservationists. World Curlew Day, the 21st of April, is a day to celebrate this most evocative of birds and all those working to protect them. Curlew Action, a small charity set up by Mary Colwell in 2019, is dedicated to spreading the word about curlews; through our monthly webinar series, we bring together different perspectives, from policy makers to farmers, to discuss the major topics impacting curlew.

Curlew chick walking in tall grass
(David Swann)

In February 2024 we hosted over 100 curlew fieldworkers from across Europe at The Red Barn in Norfolk to share ideas and learn more about how frontline workers are protecting their local populations. Our yearly art & poetry competition (and this year’s curlew bake-off!) engages creatives from across the world and from all age groups. Education and engagement are crucial parts of conservation. The social science of curlew conservation is fascinating, inspiring and harrowing in equal measure, it represents much of what the modern-day conservationist faces. If future generations are to be enchanted by the bewildering two-tone cry of the curlew, or as WS Graham referred to it, the curlews ‘love-weep’, then we as conservationists must learn to view our work not as a battle between humans and nature, but as the impetus to encourage “the slow and laborious unfolding of a new relationship between people and land”.

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Posted On: 09/04/2024

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