Curlews in crisis
By Jamie Wyver of the RSPB
Curlews have inspired artists, poets and musicians throughout the ages with their eerie but beautiful call. They also have a very distinctive shape, with their 15cm downcurved bill, evolved for probing soft mud for tasty worms, shellfish and shrimps.
But now our biggest wader is in serious trouble. Since the mid-1990s the breeding population of Eurasian curlews in the UK has halved. Vast tracts of moorland, rough pasture and hay meadows, which once rang to the sound of the rising, bubbling cries of these birds have fallen silent.
Many of the remaining curlews struggle to raise their young in an increasingly fragmented landscape. The patchy grassland and moorland where they nest is broken up by forestry and farming, making chicks more vulnerable to ground predators like foxes.
This decline has global implications as the UK is home to more than a quarter of the world’s breeding curlews. This is particularly worrying as most of the other species in the curlew family are vanishing too, including two which are presumed to be extinct, the Eskimo curlew and Slender-billed Curlew.
So, the UK and Ireland Curlew Action Group, a partnership involving a number of conservation organisations and statutory authorities, is running several projects to help curlews recover. One of these, the RSPB’s Curlew Trial Management Research Project, aims to find the best way of managing land to accommodate these birds. This includes looking at different levels of grazing and predator control.
Farmers and landowners play a vital role in reversing this bird’s fortunes. Already many are making a real difference, working with conservationists to try different methods of land management.
'Curlew Crisis Month'
As well as conservation on the ground, curlew champions across the UK are building support for these elegant birds through Curlew Crisis Month, a series of special guided walks and events.
All 'Curlew Crisis Month' events require pre-booking: for details visit the webpage for each event.
The Vanishing Song of the Curlew, RSPB Dove Stone – Sunday 6 May
RSPB Dove Stone in the Peak District National Park is a particularly important site for curlews. Along with the landowner, United Utilities, the reserve team have been working to “re-wet” the bog, by blocking old drainage ditches. This is having a positive effect on the numbers of ground nesting birds, with populations of dunlins, golden plovers and red grouse, as well as curlew, increasing on the peat bog. Book your place on the Dove Stone Vanishing Song of the Curlew walk to discover more about the reserve and the curlews that call it home.
Whaap Night, Lerwick - Saturday 12 May
The special Whaap Night at Quarff Hall, Shetland, is named after one of the curlew’s traditional monikers ‘whaap’ or ‘whaup’. The celebrations begin with wader sound walks, curlew-themed knitting, wader art, and the launch of a curlew ringtone! Live music from Fleetwood Mac tribute band Chain Gang, supported by Beltane Rae, will celebrate the long-billed bird.
Curlew Cruise, RSPB Lower Lough Erne, Saturday 19 May
The islands of Lough Erne managed by the RSPB make up one of the last strongholds for curlews in Northern Ireland. The reserve team carefully manage levels of vegetation on these by hand, but also enlist the help of cattle who are ferried between islands on a special boat called a cot. You can take a slightly more comfortable tour of the Lough by joining the Curlew Cruise, where a seat on the Lady of the Lake double-deck cruiser will give you stunning views of the islands and their wildlife.
Curlew Calling, RSPB Geltsdale – Saturday 19 May
Ian Ryding is the farmland warden at RSPB Geltsdale – and a musician. He’s hosting Curlew Calling, an evening of music and poetry celebrating the landscape and birdlife of the northern hills. His band The Talkin Fellas will be performing a curlew song they’ve written specially for the event. Ian says “As a warden at Geltsdale, to me the curlew is the true harbinger of the changing seasons. With their arrival come ever lengthening days and the anticipation of spring.”
Woods and Moors Dawn Chorus walk, Eastern Moors – Sunday 27 May
They’re not exactly songbirds but you’ll definitely hear curlews on the Woods and Moors Dawn Chorus walk at Eastern Moors. Find out how the reserve team manage this upland nature reserve for curlews, ring ouzels, and other rare species.
Curlew Moon at Hay Festival – Friday 1 June
Mary Colwell, conservationist, producer, and writer will be giving an illustrated talk about her new book, Curlew Moon. RSPB Global Conservation Director Martin Harper and curlew species champion and Welsh Assembly Member Mark Isherwood will join Mary to discuss the future of this threatened wader.
You can also support the RSPB’s curlew conservation work by treating yourself to Mirrie Dancers limited edition chocolate curlew eggs. For each bag of eggs sold an average donation of £1.49 goes towards curlew conservation.