End game for the curlew?
It was taken off our quarry list almost 40 years ago but it is time for a moratorium of curlews worldwide, says Mary Colwell
Anyone who has experienced the glory of the springtime moors and meadows of Britain will be well aware of the loss of breeding curlews, Numenius arquata, especially over the past 30 years. Our largest wading bird, with its beautiful, haunting call, is in serious trouble.
In some places, the decline seems terminal. Northern Ireland has lost more than 90 per cent of its breeding birds, from 5,000 pairs in the 1980s to 250 pairs today. Wales is hardly faring any better, with a decline of more than 80 per cent, it is estimated there are fewer than 400 pairs left.
On average, there has been a 60 per cent drop throughout England and Scotland, though averages can hide devastating figures for specific areas. If a line is drawn from the
Wash to Shrewsbury — basically the whole of southern England — you would be hard pushed to find 300 pairs of curlews breeding in lowland meadows and farmland.
The reasons for this awful situation are now well understood. Large areas of the UK have undergone dramatic changes as farming intensified after World War II, a process that was spurred on by the Common Agricultural Policy from the 1970s. Drainage, afforestation, fragmentation, silage cutting, changes to grazing and mowing dates and widespread monocultures have all taken their toll.
Curlews need varied pasture to breed successfully, such as long grass to hide their nests and shorter areas with soft ground for foraging. When the chicks hatch, they require an abundance of invertebrates
in vegetation that is not too dense.
These prerequisites are far less common today as damp, wildflower-rich meadows, with their chaos of colour, form and rough ground, have been turned into crops such as rye grass.
What curlews also need is peace. Silage machines, excessive numbers of cows and sheep and even dog walkers have an effect.
Rolling, harrowing and silage cutting are particularly bad news. In some places, silage cutting begins in late May and thousands fall victim, as curlew chicks are programmed to sink down and hide rather than run when danger approaches.
The other great threat, which will come as no surprise, is predators. Predation pressure on curlews is immense and well documented. In some areas no chicks make it through to fledging at all. Here are just a few examples. Dartmoor has produced three chicks in 12 years and has only one nesting pair left. This year, despite extensive searching, even that solitary hope could not be found. On Shooting Times contributor Patrick Laurie’s farm in Galloway, between 2010 and 2018, out of 111 nesting attempts, only one chick survived.
At a recent conference in Scotland, Patrick was blunt. “It is the end game for curlews up here,” he said, a statement that was profoundly upsetting to hear.
In Shropshire, 32 nests were observed during 2015 and 2016 and not a single chick survived. In all these places, foxes have been identified as the major problem — around 70 per cent of nest failures and chick mortality are due to foxes, followed by crows and mustelids. From what we know from other studies, it is the same story. There are similar declines for the same reasons throughout many European countries, too, such as the Netherlands, Sweden,
Around 70 per cent of nest failures and chick mortality are due to predation by foxes