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Investigating the causes of UK curlew declines

Curlew profile


The UK may hold 17-25% of the global breeding population of Eurasian curlew but numbers are declining rapidly. Between 1995 and 2011 the UK Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) shows a significant decline of 45% in breeding abundance. Within this overall decline, there is variability between regions in how populations are faring. Detailed local studies have implicated nest predation and low breeding productivity as causes of decline. However, changes in vegetation structure through changing grazing pressure in the uplands may also have an effect of habitat suitability. Understanding the causes and possible mechanisms of declines in upland curlew populations is important for developing an effective conservation strategy for this species.

Project objectives

  • Identify possible causes of changes in curlew populations and their links with changes in land management in two extensive study areas.
  • Resurvey plots in southern Scotland and South Pennines repeating methods and rerecording measures of habitat and management recorded approximately 10 years earlier.

Progress so far

  • 2009: curlew populations, hatching success, vegetation structure, predator density, grazing intensity and predator control recorded from 41 plots in southern Scotland, an area of declining curlews.
  • 2010: the same measures of curlew populations, habitat and management recorded from 36 plots in the South Pennines, an area of stable curlew populations.
  • 2011/12/13: analyses have been completed and a peer-reviewed paper has been accepted for publication

Work planned or underway

Further work will aim to develop concerted conservation effort for this species of global conservation concern.


Curlew nesting success tended to be higher, and population changes more positive, on sites with higher gamekeeper density (as a surrogate for predator control intensity). Nesting success tended to be lower, and population changes more negative, on sites with a greater area of conifer plantations surrounding the open moorland where the curlew bred. Fox abundance indices were higher on sites with a greater area of surrounding woodland, but crow abundance was not strongly associated with woodland area. These results suggest that changes in upland land use are associated with curlew declines, with predation a likely mechanism.

Who to contact

Dr David Douglas
Principal Conservation Scientist

Paul Bellamy
Senior Conservation Scientist




Natural England through Action for Birds in England (AfBiE)

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