The curlew: Wet footed god of the horizons

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The curlew: Wet footed god of the horizons

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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. 

In this first blog, our Communications Manger for North England, Chris Collett, introduces Numenius arquata - the Eurasian curlew

There aren’t many things I look forward to in the winter months but curlews are one of them. The RSPB’s Newcastle office is conveniently located right next to the Tyne, which means from the end of summer to around February, we are treated to the sight of thousands of wading birds and ducks, feeding on the muddy edges of the river.

As much as I enjoy experiencing the lively assortment of lapwings, redshanks and shelducks, what makes me happiest is watching the nimble but slightly comical curlews.

For those of you who have yet to be introduced to this charismatic bird, the curlew is Europe’s tallest wading bird and is characterised by its long gangly legs, elongated down turned beak and a bubbling call.

If you have children, you may recognise it from Helen Oxenbury’s wonderful illustration of children squelching through mud in Michael Rosen’s We’re Going on a Bear Hunt.

While the curlew spends the winter along our muddy estuaries, it heads up to the hills in spring where it breeds on moors and farmland.

I’m not alone in my affection for curlews. The 18th century poet Robert Burns proclaimed he had “never heard the solitary whistle of curlew on a summer noon without feeling an elevation of soul. Ted Hughes, meanwhile, proclaimed the curlew “a wet-footed god of the horizons.” I’m not exactly sure what the poet-laureate meant by this but it sounds pretty good. 

 And it’s not just poets that appreciate curlews. Many hill farmers say they love the birds as their arrival heralds the start of spring.

But sadly, the curlew is in trouble. Over the past 20 years we’ve lost half of all our curlews in UK. Unless we take decisive action now, we may lose them. This is why we’ve decided to run Curlew in Crisis Week. Over the coming days we’ll be running a series of blogs talking about why curlews are declining and about how farmers, conservationists and politicians are working to save the bird for future generations.     

Comments
  • On a more relevant point to the curlew, flooding, which I haven't found mentioned in all the articles so far, is another major factor. Over the last 10 or so years a lot of eggs and chicks were submerged.  

  • Snipe, woodcock, golden plover. What have these species got in common? Infact, let's not leave the list at waders. Pochard, white fronted goose, shoveler, pintail. What have they too got in common? Yes, they are all determined as quarry species for the shooting industry to share leisure time with. With these facts in mind, is it not disingenuous for shooting industry supporters to suggest they want to help a declining bird species to recover, whilst at the same time ignore the plight of all the above? Snipe, woodock, pochard and white fronted goose are all red listed, and most of the rest are amber.    

  • Rob may be right (he is afterall an astute observer of all things rural) but I do wonder if there are more complex under currents here than simply applying yet more intensive land management in favour of one or two species. I've expanded on this in some recent responses to articles by "those who shoot" justifying their own particular brand of self-interested land management for single species game shoots. I reproduce the main paragraphs here from a response to Peter Glenser (Chairman of BASC) in Country Squire Magazine... (see: linkis.com/.../41P5z for my full Right to Reply article)

    "in encouraging unnaturally high numbers of single species game birds in order to create the shootable-surplus of which he is so fond, whether that is through intensive breeding of non-natives (e.g. pheasants) or intensive land management for wild birds (e.g. grouse), is that it just creates the right conditions for higher predator populations by symbiosis. This is a well-known ecological process whereby predator populations follow in close synchronisation, sometimes a year or two behind their prey species, depending on birth rates and populations. Thereby land management for shootable surpluses of game species also increases populations of predators such as mustelids, corvids, raptors, foxes, etc. which in turn creates the need for predator control (by trapping, snaring, shooting, etc.) and in all probability also increases the disease/parasite burden.

    Further research is needed here, though anecdotal evidence from conversations with individuals in the shooting industry would suggest this is at least in part correct. If it is, then those who shoot (or rather those in their employ) are just making the predation problem worse. Heavy-handed predator control (and I’ve seen some pretty extreme examples) just creates a predator vacuum into which other predators flow to occupy once a territory is seen as vacant. This further perpetuates the need for yet more predator control.

    To make matters worse, not only do these predators prey on the game species you are trying to protect in order to create the shootable surplus, but there will also be a “spill over” predation on other species of conservation importance such as ground nesting birds (curlew, plover, lapwing) that your predator control also purports to protect, since predator species don’t distinguish between game and non-game birds. The “inconvenient truth” that predator control for game bird management also protects IUCN Red List species, may in fact turn out to be inconvenient in itself!

    I would expect at this point many people in the shooting industry including the GWCT, Moorland Association and CA, will be now reaching for their statistics on comparative bird numbers on keepered versus unkeepered moors, but these again tell only half the story. The “Shifting Baseline” syndrome comes into play here in regard to how we think about just what are natural or healthy numbers of these species. Undoubtedly, conservation in the name of field sports has had a positive effect in increasing and maintaining some species while suppressing others, but we need to ask ourselves whether these numbers are natural or dare I say wild? Biodiversity is a numbers game and we shouldn’t confuse it with wild nature. We may ask a simple question here: “How did wildlife manage before we came along to help?” Intensive habitat and species management for game over the years has skewed our understanding of what is wild and natural both in terms of numbers and distributions. For example, where were the favoured habitats of ground nesting waders such as curlew and lapwing before intensive management for grouse? It was most likely on lowland heath, fen, marsh and grasslands; much of which has been drained and ploughed up for intensive arable farming, thereby displacing these birds to the uplands, much of which is owned and shot over by the large lowland land owning interests where intensive arable agriculture is profitable business."

    I've yet to receive any reply. Have I got a point?

    Steve

  • Chris

    The science has been done - based on skilled lab-based and informed by anecdotal from gamekeepers. RSPB Science have just published this onlinelibrary.wiley.com/.../full

    Time to act - however tough for some to have face up to managing predators, as it's key stuff alongside targeted habitat works. Let's work with what may be perceived as counter-intuitive partners (see above) before it's too late.

    Our human-interest 'tribal ownership' of this iconic bird is getting in the way of saving it. I hope and are happy to be proved wrong by the blogs this week.

    Best

    Rob

    wwww.robyorke.co.uk

  • I saw one at Felixstowe Ferry only yesterday - absolutely beautiful.  Their mournful cry is unmistakable.