The Curlew Crisis
The Curlew. Latin name Numenius arquata. The largest wading bird in Europe, the Curlew can be seen all year round in the UK, on the moorlands and uplands in the breeding season and on the estuaries and coasts throughout winter. For me, the presence of the Curlew has been something of a constant throughout my life. I grew up in upland Northumberland, in an area surrounded by moorland where I would (and still do when home) walk my dogs daily. Although these moorlands are fairly quiet and eerie during winter with nothing but red grouse to disturb the peace, during summer, this habitat can look quite different. The sun comes out, the frosts disappear and the Lapwings, Red shanks, Golden Plovers, Oystercatchers, Snipe and of course, Curlews arrive. Suddenly, the moorlands have a rather beautiful and haunting chorus echoing from them as these birds cry throughout the day and sometimes the night, their eerie melodies floating miles across the countryside. If the Curlew were to go missing from its summer haunts, things would be very strange indeed.
In the UK we have a Curlew breeding population of around 68,000 and a wintering population of 150,000. And we have a crisis on our hands?! 150,000 and 68,000 sounds like a perfectly healthy number! Unfortunately, this is not the case. Not when we consider that the UK alone holds approximately 30% of the Western Europe population and that this population is, in fact, declining. The populations in the UK are considered internationally important due to the amount of birds that can be found across the country, however, populations in the UK declined by 42% between 1995 and 2008 and this trend has continued. In Northern Ireland, there was a 60% decline between 1987 and 1999. Sadly, these declines are not confined to our shores, with Curlews populations falling across their global breeding range and consequently, they are classed as a ‘near threatened’ species on the IUCN Red List.
This decline has been obvious in those areas where Curlews are a common sight. Although Curlews are still greatly in evidence where I grew up, I have noticed a change in the amount of birds that are visiting each summer. When I was a child, Curlews were quite literally everywhere! The moorlands and grasslands were littered with them! A 30 minute walk would mean running into hundreds of Curlews! Now however, their numbers are fewer and although you are more than likely to run into them whenever you go up to the moors, you may only see 5 or 6 in one outing. The majority of the remaining UK Curlew population can be found in Scotland, with 60% present here and the remaining birds in northern England.
So what’s happened? What is taking our Curlews from us? It has been suggested that agricultural intensification, such as drainage and re-seeding on upland farmlands and moorlands (there’s certainly a lot of drainage!) may be causing the decline in populations. In addition, the afforestation of moorlands may also be threatening the species. Predation on nests has also been suggested as a factor, however, this is obviously a sensitive issue for those who love our predator species. In this instance, at least where I grew up (North Pennines), predation is unlikely to be a huge problem because with red grouse moorland being the dominant habitat, there is of course regular evidence of extensive predator control. In fact, trampling by livestock, predominantly sheep and cows, is likely to be the main cause, as you really can’t move for them! In my area of Northumberland I see many a Lapwing and Curlew nest in fields where sheep and cows are many. In fact, some surveys have suggested that trampling is responsible for 33% of nest failures in the North Pennines.
So, what can we do? Many conservationists have already taken up arms in their fight to protect the Curlew and are doing a marvellous job so far. This year however, maybe you could get involved in the breeding bird survey? This is a hugely important survey, and is the main monitoring scheme for bird population changes in the UK. This year, it needs volunteers for upland breeding birds! It only takes a couple of mornings walk in the breeding season (April-June) and to count the number of birds you see in a 1km square grid. It does not take much but could be so important for our birds! It’s hands on conservation work that anyone can get involved in and it really is worth the effort.
The feelings that they cry of the Curlew stirs in individuals varies hugely. For some it can sound melancholic, heartbreaking, and desperately mournful. It can be considered eerie, creepy and haunting, a lone call moving through the mist of the moorland. Whilst to others it can be joyful, uplifting and passionate. Whatever your interpretation of the call of the curlew, it would be a bleak day indeed should we lose it.
“…What other sound could be like this?
Which other note could trespass on
to where the likes of tears are formed?
What else speaks so well
of wilderness, of loneliness?
Which alternate voice could manifest
this desolate deliverance?
Such trifling things as life and death
are kept in Curlew’s calls…”
– A.W. Bullen.
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