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

Shooting Times & Country Magazine - - CONSERVATION -

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

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