April, 2017

Our work

Our work
You might be surprised to read that our work is far broader than nature reserves and Big Garden Birdwatch. Read more about what else we do.

Saving Species

The need for species conservation has never been greater. Despite notable successes in improving the fortunes of a number of bird species, more are being forced onto the list of those that need attention, both globally and in the UK. If we want to have a
  • Curlew’s glass ceiling

    This week we're focusing on the plight of the curlew - a bird that would be at the top of many lists to be the UK's totemic bird - not just because our coasts and estuaries host internationally important numbers of them in the winter, not only because our hills and moors (and some lowland areas too) are places that are globally significant breeding areas for curlew but as much because their wild presence and evocative calls are part of  the soul of our countryside. They have woven their existence into our consciousness, our art and culture and yet they are in trouble. 

    I'm delighted that Rob Yorke offered this guest blog as part of our series looking at the issue from his distinctive perspective. His aim is always keen to engender dialogue and debate and we would be delighted if this blog did just that.

    Rob Yorke is an independent  rural commentator and surveyor who works with conservationists and writes opinions/blogs and chairs debates. Here, for the #CurlewCrisis, he reiterates a message from a guest blog he did for Martin Harper (RSPB’s Director of Global Conservation) in 2013 about working closer together for conservation.

    “How I miss the call of the waders over the valley”. The farmer sighed as we headed down through the scrubby hillside towards grassy fields. “Especially the curlew. Its bubbling call, returning to the valley every spring, was so haunting yet uplifting at the same time. We had smaller tractors back then - lighter over boggy fields, cows grazing on the hill broke up bracken, arable crops were sown in the spring and hay meadows cut once birds had nested. An old boy wandered about, gun under arm, keeping crow and fox at bay until curlew chicks were cleverer in finding cover“.

    An anecdotally bucolic era fifty years ago before things started to change. In 1955 a radio program, ostensibly a government information service, was launched to ‘help farmers become more efficient’. Grants followed to drain rushy fields, finance to buy larger tractors, new hybrid grasses enabled two cuts of silage – ‘we were encouraged to move with the times’ – even when curlew’s nesting cover disappeared, the rural labour force decreased as tractor horsepower increased. That radio program, now more a lifestyle series, The Archers, continues to run and run.

    This week’s RSPB blogs mirror a deep affection for curlew across town and country. Perhaps, as we’ve urbanised, it’s become a poster bird for our lost connection with the countryside, which itself, a continually evolving mesh of changing land use practices and habitats, has caused the bird’s loss. It’s complex for sure. Habitat for one is never stationary. Curlews are collateral damage in these dynamic processes - while overwintering numbers are boosted by birds from abroad, breeding populations are dangerously low. ‘Sink’ populations unable to increase their productivity within fragmented landscapes of habitat and ruptured prey/predator food webs. It’s not gone unnoticed with no less than three conservation organisations (the RSPB, GWCT and BTO) all currently researching or seeking funds for the curlew.

    Much science has already been done. RSPB research in 2001 noted that ‘considerable changes in land-use could benefit generalist predator species or increase the vulnerability of curlew nests to predation’, while in 2013, there were similar issues around upland woodland – see here. In Wales, the use of camera traps recorded sheep accidently trampling nests, while similar cameras today in the Curlew Country Recovery project log nightly visits of ‘nest-hungry’ badgers (remember that badger on Springwatch?). In Ireland, a recently set up Curlew Taskforce has already moved to act on the control of foxes. Our humanly emotional issues around management of predators are valid and justifiable. But this must not let us conflate animal welfare with wildlife conservation, nor pre-judge the motives of those that undertake the works. Any management must be done skilfully, more scientifically than ‘wandering around with a gun’, to ensure that those predators, directly affecting the recovery of specific ground nesting birds, are legally removed at the right time. This is not a ‘joy ride’ in the name of intensive game bird management, nor is it an eradication operation similar to the removal of rats from the Shiants, the ruddy duck from the UK or hedgehogs from the Outer Hebrides; but a coordinated targeted science-informed exercise as part of a mosaic of management and habitat related actions specifically required for curlew.

    Mary Colwell, a broadcaster specialising in nature, has walked 500 miles to raise the profile of this iconic species. ‘There’s no doubt that we care for this bird, we coalesce around its charisma – drawn to its vulnerable niche in our human influenced landscape’ says Colwell. But that’s the rub – the intertwined connection wildlife and humans. Colwell sounds a word of warning -”we have hit a wall where people can’t face up to what pragmatic conservation means on the ground – the curlew is bringing into focus a need for us to come together to engage public opinion in having to swallow an un-cuddly bitter conservation pill if we really wish to deliver public benefit by saving this bird.”

    Last week, the RSPB posthumously awarded a medal for conservation science to Dr Dick Potts. He was an expert in such matters. His so-called ‘three-legged stool’, referred to three key elements all being in place at the same time - habitat cover for nesting, habitat to provide invertebrate chick-food and management of predators – still holds true today for many ground-nesting birds. The RSPB are about to publish more research reinforcing further understanding of this intricate relationship between habitat and predation. Time is short, as Graham Appleton of WaderTales told me, “these are desperate times for the curlew and we need to use all the tools at our disposal to increase the breeding success of the Eurasian curlew”.

    Let us diverge from partisan sentimentality to converge on common ground to work pragmatically together for this bird. Offence is not a defence when it comes to saving wildlife – especially if it risks jeopardising the financial survival of curlew initiatives when organisations use a defence that they can’t fund effective, science-informed conservation for fear of offending the public by managing predators.

    Alongside the support from those that care for curlews, the fund raising and research by various conservation NGOs, there are farmers like Patrick Laurie who “will keep on working for the birds this spring because giving up is not an option”.

    The rest of us can only be braver in keeping all options open in finding all the ways  - brave or otherwise - to help save curlews.

    Rob Yorke blogs at www.robyorke.co.uk and welcomes guest blogs/feedback

  • All you need to know about curlew

    This week we're focusing on the plight of the curlew - a bird that would be at the top of many lists to be the UK's totemic bird - not just because our coasts and estuaries host internationally important numbers of them in the winter, not only because our hills and moors (and some lowland areas too) are places that are globally significant breeding areas for curlew but as much because their wild presence and evocative calls are part of the soul of our countryside. They have woven their existence into our consciousness, our art and culture and yet they are in trouble. 

    Conservation Scientist Pip Gullett works on the RSPB’s UK-wide Curlew Trail Management Project. Here, she gives a beginners guide this fascinating bird. 

    Curloooo! Whaup whaup! Curlooooo-aloo-aloo-aloo!

    Close your eyes, open ears, and picture the scene. A misty moor on a damp spring morning, bright green mosses glinting with rain, and a dark figure rising up out of the brown carpet of heather... a figure on wings, with long grey legs, a brownish streaked body, and an absurdly long beak...

    Curlew - Europe's largest wader. Photo credit Tim Melling

    Yep, you got it – a curlew. The curlew is Europe’s largest wader. When they spread their wings they’re almost a metre wide, and if one was standing next to you its head would reach somewhere near your knee. Most record-breaking is their beak, which is around 15cm long – imagine carrying that around on your head. I always feel slightly sorry for curlews; that long turned-down beak always gives them a depressed, grumpy look. That said, the curlew is one of my favourite birds, and hearing their wailing bubbling song return to the moors each spring is always a special treat.

    Curlews normally live for around 20 years (one record-breaker made it to 31) and they generally don’t breed until they’re at least two years old. Males and females look similar, but if you get close enough you can normally tell a female by her even longer, more curved beak (and even more grumpy look) – and if you see a pair together you’ll notice that the female is quite a bit bigger too.

    When curlews are on the ground, the only bird you could easily confuse them with is their close relative the whimbrel, and given that the only breeding hotspot for whimbrels in Britain is Shetland, that’s not likely to be a problem for most people! In flight, though, it’s not so simple. I’ve sometimes been tricked into thinking one was a gull (slow wingbeats, cartoon ‘M’-shaped look and generally greyish appearance) or even a bird of prey (when flying fast or low, with wings hunched forward). The key things to look for in flight are the beak (no gull or merlin ever had something quite that bonkers on their face) and the bright white patch on the curlew’s back, at the base of its tail.

    Of course, if the curlew calls, you’ll have no excuse for misidentifying it at all, since it will be yelling its name right at you... “curlew” for its bubbling song and “whaup” (as it’s more commonly known in Scotland) for its wailing calls.

    In the winter, curlews gather in large flocks (often several hundred) along muddy coasts and estuaries, as well as on rocky shores, coastal wetlands and inland lakeshores. This is when that long beak really comes into its own, allowing curlews to delve deep into the mud for worms and other tasty minibeasts. From around February onwards, curlew flocks start to break up and return inland to breed, looking for open damp areas like moorland, bog, damp grassland, farmland and heath. Curlews are very site-faithful, often spending the winter on the same stretch of coast each year and returning to the same field or patch of bog each spring. I love to imagine the map inside a curlew’s head – how do they remember where to go? They also tend to pair up with the same partner each year (convenience or true love?), so if you’re lucky enough to see curlews near your home, they’re probably the same birds coming back year on year – how romantic!

    The amazing flight displays and bubbling “curloooo-aloo-aloo” calls you can witness in the spring are the male’s way of displaying his wares and claiming his territory. Once the males and females have paired up in early April or so, they build a very simple nest on the ground, scraping a slight hollow and lining it with grass, moss, or fragments of rush. The female lays three or four gorgeous olive-green eggs, each about the size of a goose egg. This is a big investment for her, so she normally only lays one egg every two days until the clutch is complete. Luckily, at this point the male steps in to help with incubation, with mum and dad often splitting the shifts between day and night so that both have time to feed. This goes on for around four stressful weeks, during which time the nest is very vulnerable to attack by roaming predators like foxes and crows.

    Curlews are fierce parents, and if you stumble on one screeching its head off and dive-bombing a crow, it’s likely there’s a nest somewhere nearby. In a few lucky cases, the hard work pays off, and four weeks later the chicks hatch as little balls of brown and yellow fluff, with a stubby black beak and slender blue legs like a miniature ostrich. Within a few hours of hatching, the brave wee things will leave the nest, pecking tasty insects off the plants and following their parents around for safety. Often it looks more as if it’s the parents trying to follow them – like most young ones they seem to think they’re invincible, and their poor parents spend a lot of time standing guard and trying to keep their chicks safely hidden when danger appears.

    For the next few weeks, the curlew family will move together over the fields and moors, foraging hungrily for insects and worms, until eventually, at around five weeks old, the chicks are big enough to fly. In June and July, look out for funny-looking curlews with a clumsy flight and a rather short beak (it takes a while longer to grow that masterpiece), and you might be lucky enough to spot a recent fledgling learning to fly. As soon as they can, it’s time to rejoin their neighbours and start heading in flocks back to the relative safety and luxury (all that mud to feed in!) of the coast. By late July, an eerie quiet descends over the fields and bogs once more.

    With the trouble that curlews are now in, that eerie quiet has already fallen year-round in many places where breeding curlews were once common. When I think of this, and realise that our grandchildren might never hear the magic of that wailing bubbling song, I feel even luckier to be a part of a project that is trying to halt the decline and ensure the recovery of this gorgeous bird. Which reminds me – I’d better get onto the bog now and find some curlews. Just hearing them will be enough.

  • Curlew in trouble

    This week we're focusing on the plight of the curlew - a bird that would be at the top of many lists to be the UK's totemic bird - not just because our coasts and estuaries host internationally important numbers of them in the winter, not only because our hills and moors (and some lowland areas too) are places that are globally significant breeding areas for curlew but as much because their wild presence and evocative calls are part of  the soul of our countryside. They have woven their existence into our consciousness, our art and culture and yet they are in trouble. 

    Yesterday Chris Collett looked at the place curlews have in our culture - today Sarah Sanders, RSPB's Curlew Recovery Programme Manager looks at the crisis facing our curlews.

    At this time of year, the best place to see curlew is out on the moorlands and hills.  I have a pair that I regularly look out for when I’m running round Alnwick moor. The distinctive ‘curlee-curlee’ call they make is something you can’t easily forget and it always lifts my spirits even when I have a few more miles uphill to go.

    In his 1912 edition of the Birds of Northumberland, the natural historian George Balam included a quote from a friend, which captures the experience beautifully.

    ‘A moor without a curlew is like a night without the moon, and he who has not eye for the one and an ear for the other is a mere body without a soul’

    After watching the film footage yesterday, it’s shocking to think we could lose the call of the curlew from some places in the UK. Earlier this year, I posted a blog about a ground-breaking assessment which concluded that curlews and godwits are probably the most threatened group of birds in the world. It’s likely that we have already lost two species from the group, so we don’t want to lose another.

    I mentioned that the curlew we see here in the UK are in serious trouble. The breeding population has almost halved since the mid 1990s. In some places, like Northern Ireland where the decline has been 82%, we are facing a real possibility that they could disappear altogether in the next twenty years. At the same time we have a global responsibility to take action as the UK is the third most important country for breeding curlews. We are home to up to a quarter of the breeding population and numbers are dropping here faster than anywhere else in the world.

    If they are to survive, curlew need to produce at least one chick every couple of years but they are currently struggling to do this because of changes in the way our countryside is managed. Photo credit Tim Melling

    Curlews are widely distributed across the countryside. They like to nest in open spaces which are fairly flat and covered in rough damp grass. So what is causing the low breeding success? In some places land has been drained to improve pasture for sheep and cattle. In others, land has been converted to forestry. Changes to sheep and cattle grazing practices and the timing of grass cuts have all had an impact along with the predation of eggs and chicks.

    There is, however, some good news. The RSPB has launched a five-year programme to save the curlew. We can’t do this on our own. A key part of this first phase is finding out what we need to do for curlews so that, with the support of land-managers and farmers, the countryside is managed so that curlews thrive. We will be hearing more tomorrow from farmers across the four countries on how they are doing this.

    We must do all we can to keep the call of our much-loved curlew!