Curlew’s glass ceiling

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Curlew’s glass ceiling

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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. 

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 and welcomes guest blogs/feedback

  • And in the absence of the full version online, as a taster, there is a fascinating blog summarising some of the findings on the BOU's website, see here -  

  • Postscript. Some really good research just in from RSPB researchers on predation, habitat, and waders. Seeking full version online so land managers can learn from it

  • I still have no problem with 'management' (science informed, of course ;-) ). Where vulnerable species need help, no problem. However, sorry to repeat the point, but how many curlews have been shot in France in recent years? Red listed waders are being shot in UK. Unless there is a moratorium, isn't it just a case of shooting some corvids means more waders end up being shot? If more crows get shot, isn't that taking a predator of magpie nests out of the equation, so then more magpies need to be shot? It is pretty clear to me the main predators in gardens around here are cats and great spotted woodpeckers.

  • We can find ways to work together on this matter but only if we follow the evidence (science-informed, not necessarily science-based, as any actions must be framed within economic, political, anecdotal, ethical, social etc contexts) and based on shared collaborative solutions.

    Some telling comments below this blog as to how we can do this - though nowt easy by any stretch of the imagination!

  • Sorry, but it is not forward looking if declining wader populations are continuing to be shot. It is far easier to talk about snipe etc than it is to have a moratorium on shooting until they are 'green status'.

  • There was plenty of engagement and collaboration from many members/organisations of Scotland’s conservation community on Thursday at the first of the SNH-sponsored #Working-For-Waders workshops - .

    Participants included representatives from BTO Scotland, CONFOR, JHI, Moorland Forum, RSPB Scotland, SGA, SLE, SNH, SongBird Survival, SRUC and several Scottish sporting estates, amongst other interested parties.

    This forward-looking, promising initiative aims to reverse the current declines in Scotland’s breeding wader populations through joined-up action and collaborative working.  Scottish conservationists are certainly leading the way in promoting collaboration, so well done SNH, Moorland Forum, BTO Scotland, SRUC and JHI for galvinising and facilitating a stimulating event.

  • In reply to my comment about being bolder in conservation under this piece in The Times today - this honest riposte

    "Read your article, Rob. May I be honest?

    I love the curlew as well. One of the first sounds of spring on the Pentlands!


    The only predators you mentioned, apart from clumsy sheep, were badgers and foxes. So until you are prepared to accept control of badgers, which have no natural predators in the UK, and accept that the most natural and efficient way to control the fox population is with hounds (as it has been for centuries) would you like to shut up, please?"

  • No problem, Rob. Unfortunately, you will be left as frustrated as me. There are so many blogs that are worth reading, and often worth contributing to. There are a lot of hours put in by people, carefully writing them. Yet, many blogs end up 'lost' on the site. My reply can't even 'bump up' your blog. Yet, I can make some weather related comment on a general chitchat post, and it immediately becomes the most visible contribution to the site and invariably the first thing anyone visiting the community sees! I've given up long after many other contributors have left. I can't even get my profile deleted, presumably as my request isn't being seen by anyone who can do the honours!

    I’ll endeavour to keep an eye out for anymore responses to this blog, even if I manage to achieve deletion. However, I don’t see an easy solution for most declining bird species, incl the curlew I’m afraid.

  • Thank you Robbo and Steve for your comments.

    I hope others post theirs - out of 1.1 million RSPB members plus plenty of others caring for curlew, there must be some more comments?! - before I come back to you on your points (though my blog is mainly about evidence-informed conservation practices to save curlews, not specifically game shooting practices - touched on within my blog for Martin Harper mentioned in the intro and this one

    Best Rob


  • With the greatest respect, asking people to give the same opinions they have done for years, isn't giving me an impression of progress. Still there is no reference to flooding being an issue. There is again an opportunity to cut & paste out the word, 'curlew' and replace it with any bird species you like. e.g. snipe, red grouse. Leave out geographic references and you can use Spoon billed sandpiper!

    It is perfectly obvious that because of human actions over centuries, there is an imbalance so some 'positive' human intervention is essential (for all struggling species). However, most predators are 'generalist', whether we’re talking corvids, fox, stoat and badger, which the contributor invariably returns to for reasons we can only guess at, or whether we are talking about cats, gulls, unsupervised dogs, kestrels or people etc.

    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, woodcock, pochard and white fronted goose are all red listed, and most of the rest are amber.

    How many curlews have been shot in France in the last decade? How many bewicks swans have been shot at on migration across Europe (whether survived or died)? Red breasted geese? Turtle doves?

    Why did the dodo go extinct? Passenger pigeon? Tasmanian tiger? Why are species like non native pheasants and red legged partridge, plus red grouse needing such extensive human intervention and game keeping management? Could it possibly be because this entire list has been slaughtered at an unsustainable level that requires unsustainable management?

    Humans are a generalist predator. One that doesn’t need to be, and one that has more intelligence than for example a cat. Humans can choose not to shoot red listed snipe. Europeans are choosing to intervene in the hunting of spoon billed sandpipers in another continent, where communities are struggling to make ends meet. Yet, Europeans are with a few individual exceptions, letting similar slaughter continue in their own continent. Shooting that is often not done by those struggling to feed their families.

  • All interesting stuff Rob, and you know I don't shy away from predator control where it may be necessary (i.e. in the absence of natural controls) but why are we pussy-footing around the issue of game management

    which encourages artificially high numbers of prey species (grouse and pheasants) which then creates the ideal conditions for elevated mesopredator numbers through symbiosis which then prey on other bird species of conservation concern (curlew, lapwing, plover) as "spill over" predation? I've written about this before and no-one seems to want to respond. Why? Is it because I have a point? Or am I wrong?


    Steve @LandEthics