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
UK Priority Species: Ring ouzel Turdus torquatus
You might well now be faced with a dilemma, which will hinge on an interesting question: What is a ring ouzel? This is a fair enough question as it is somewhat mysterious, however, asking this question should not deter you from reading this informative blog. This blog is here to answer such questions and by the end, I’m sure, you will be happy in the knowledge that you learned something important today about one of the UK’s least studied birds.
Ring who-ouzel?Unlike the skylark of last week, I struggled to find any artistic works that had been inspired by ring ouzels and I challenge you to find one, or perhaps write one… This artistic dearth is not due to the lack of the ring ouzel’s inspirational qualities and more to do with their wary relationship with humans. Surprisingly then, that ring ouzels are the shy relatives of the inquisitive and confident blackbird, and in human terms they would be the family member who inexplicably vanishes when a picture is being taken. Ring ouzels are summer migrants, travelling all the way from their wintering sites in North-west Africa. They are moorland birds and in flight like to keep low to the ground, skimming the heather and dipping out of sight where possible. Ring ouzels have strange ideas about what makes a comfortable nest, choosing spots under heather, amongst rocks often on crags, scree, boulders or broken ground, it seems anywhere that looks bumpy should do the trick.
Why is the ring ouzel a conservation priority? Sadly, the story of the ring ouzel is one of decline. The reality of their decline is most apparent between the late 1980s and late 1990s when the national population fell by a massive 58% and in response the bird was classified as of top conservation concern.
What is a conservation priority?I think it is important, and helpful, to explain a little about how conservationists know when a bird is declining and how conservation priorities are decided. The last review was in 2009 when leading bird conservation experts and organisations got together to assess the status of our birds. To work out the extent of each species decline they looked at changes in population numbers for 246 birds. Each species was placed onto a colour list that indicates the level of conservation concern. There are 52 species on the red list, 126 on the amber and 68 on the green. Yep…that’s right you’ve guessed it, ring ouzel is seeing red and yep that’s right again, red as always means danger and species on this list are highest conservation priority.
Why has this happened?The worrying answer to this question is, that no one is completely sure. Causes that have been suggested include afforestation, loss of suitable habitat, climate change, changes in grazing regimes, and grassland improvement. Breeding ring ouzels are sensitive to changes in temperature and rainfall. In the UK they are mostly found in the north of England, Wales and Scotland which represent the edge of their range. In response to warming temperatures these species are predicted to move towards higher altitudes and further north. As a result their UK ranges would potentially decrease.
What is the RSPB doing for ring ouzel? Tricky…as so much is still unknown, there is little direct action that the RSPB can take to help this species to recover and as soon as more information becomes available, work will be progressed. To aid this process, research work is underway into the ecology of ring ouzels, particularly into determining which stage of their lifecycle is suffering and leading to the poor survival rates. What you can do to make a difference in the International Year of Biodiversity!Help! There is a very real and pressing need for more information about the declines of these mysterious migrators and to do this we need you! Anyone can get involved in recording ring ouzels through BirdTrack, which increases the value of your sightings by looking at them on a national scale. However, a word of advice, some blackbirds can develop a similar pattern of white as the ring ouzel, and can be easily mistaken. Inorder to be certain it is always best to try and get a photograph so that the sighting can be confirmed.If you are a keen birdwatcher you could consider undertaking a BBS square for the Breeding Birds Survey which provides population trend information for conservation priority listing. In the case of ring ouzel, instead of the necessary 40 BBS squares, which enable assessment of the population trend, there were only 28 in 2009. Increasing this coverage would be a really important step for ring ouzels and would only involve visiting a local site twice during the breeding season. If you are a farmer in the uplands and moorlands, make sure you check out our dedicated farming pages which are a fantastic source of information and give ways to get involved in wildlife friendly farming. The RSPB have also put together a ring ouzel advice leaflet, which can tell you about ways of managing land to help ring ouzels.
I want ring ouzel and I want it now! By now you might well be feeling this way. Unfortunately, this can be a difficult wish to satisfy, as they can be elusive, as many know who have set out with the desire to see this mysterious bird and have returned with unquenched ring ouzel thirst. There are several particularly gorgeous RSPB reserves where you can go seeking them, which make a great day out, including beauties such as Lake Vrynwy in Wales, Loch Garten at Abernethy, Haweswater in the lake district and Geltsdale.
Uk Priority Species: Bittern
In the days of yore, bitterns have been called many different things- my particular faves include bog blutter, and mire drumble. Fantastic. These names derive from the bittern’s extremely distinctive mating call, which is known as booming. With a quivering body and through great exhalation, bitterns make a very deep, long and mournful note, which sounds like blowing on the top of an empty milk bottle. It can be heard more than 5 km away! Have a look at the momentous booming bittern on film to see it calling. Historically, folklore surrounding the bittern’s call led to the belief that it was an omen for death, and as the poetic genius of Baldrick once surmised: Boom boom boom boom. Boom boom boom boom. Ultimately, all this ramble of course pre-empts the question; are bittern populations actually booming?
The bitterns many guises The bittern is a flexible fellow and has intricate camouflage techniques. They can compact themselves into puffed up balls with only a bill peeking out (cute) or, at the other extreme, thrust their heads and neck straight out vertically and freeze, holding this position for nearly an hour. They can even do this swimming to look like a reed being pushed by the wind. Astonishingly, there are records of bitterns, which have been found hiding by lying horizontally when storms have flattened reed beds! Sometimes bitterns can appear blueish or even purple, this may be because of the blue-ish skin tone that males seem to take on around their bill during the breeding season or because they use a substance called powder down, which is derived from the breakdown of specialised feathers. This is worked into the plumage during preening - using a serrated, comb-shaped specially adapted claw - to keep the birds free from fish and eel slime. Very clever…maybe a little too clever, if you know what I mean…
Have you ever bitten a bit of a bittern? (sorry)Bitterns have been consumed in a wide variety of households and appeared on tables through from the Middle Ages until the 19th century. In 1465, when the Chancellor of England, George Neville, was invested as Archbishop of York, the extravagant celebration meal included, 400 swans, 2000 geese, 1000 capons and 204 bitterns, which is more than double the current population of bitterns! What a greedy bishop. Speaking of greedy people, Henry the VIII had a liking for the bittern and issued legislation protecting each egg of every bittern! (Although his big belly was probably one of the main drivers for their near extinction).
The rise and fall of the bittern Hunting and habitat loss eventually took its toll on the bittern population, and as the bittern grew rarer, egg collecting and trophy hunting became bigger threats. Bitterns finally became extinct as a breeding bird in the UK in the late 19th century following extensive persecution and wetland drainage. After slowly recolonising from the early 20th century, there was a subsequent decline again to a second near extinction in 1997, when just 11 booming males remained.
Bittern: a wildlife celebrity The disappearance of the bittern from the UK in many ways led to the end of negative public attitudes and connections. Along with the bittern’s resurrection came great celebration and it became a very high profile conservation priority. Extraordinary efforts were and are made by the RSPB, Natural England and other organisations, to re-establish this bird. EU–LIFE Nature have funded two large multi partner projects in the UK in 1996, and then again in 2001 to restore bittern habitat and reverse its decline.
Bedtime for bitternsBreeding bitterns need wetland containing wet reedbeds and open water, with lots of fish and amphibians, which are their main foods. Reedbeds are wetlands, dominated by stands of common reed, they are a dynamic habitat that naturally will gradually dry out and become woodland, bitterns prefer the early wet stages of a reedbed’s life. This habitat has been lost historically by being drained and converted for agriculture, and without the right management, some has dried out and turned to scrub or woodland. It needs ongoing management to prevent it drying out and to control vegetation succession.
Most of our important reedbeds are now under conservation management and drainage and lack of management are now less of a problem than they were. Reedbed is amongst the most important habitats for some specialist birds in the UK, and is home to a number of species that are high priorities for the RSPB, they also benefit many different species, such as watervoles, swallowtail butterflies and otters. RSPB reserves total an astonishing one sixth of the UK's reedbed and support around 30% of the total bittern population!
New threatsSadly, both bitterns and reedbeds are now under threat from a new assailant: climate change. A high proportion of reedbed habitat and thusly the bittern population is near to coastal areas where the potential for flooding from sea-level rise remains high. Over the coming century climate change may cause sea levels to rise by 20-50cm, causing storm surges that may destroy sites where bitterns successfully nest. If reedbeds at bittern breeding sites such as Minsmere, Walberswick and Easton Broad become inundated by seawater, then the population may not recover.
Developing mechanisms for dealing with such issues as climate change is an increasingly difficult challenge for conservationists. Not only is it extremely difficult to predict the timescale and intensity of such impacts, it is something that is essentially outside of our control. Developing mitigation measures for species, which are vulnerable to climate change and its impacts, will be an increasing priority. For bitterns, it is imperative that new wetland sites are created further from the coast, to enable them to breed elsewhere. There has been some progress with finding compensatory habitat and the principles are in place, yet delivery remains slow.
Bitterns retreatTwo sites, Ham Wall and Lakenheath Fen, are part of a strategic move to create reedbeds in sustainable locations away from areas of the coast, which are vulnerable to sea level rise. RSPB Lakenheath Fen has been transformed into reedbed habitat from a former carrot field by flood manipulation and reseeding! Excitingly, in 2010, there has been a significant 10% shift in the distribution of the bittern population towards the new, large inland reedbeds. However, in 2010, 41% of nesting females still remain on sites immediately threatened by saline incursion.
And, most importantly, are there booming numbers of Bitterns? Thanks to an ongoing program of detailed annual monitoring funded by Natural England and carried out by RSPB, we know that bitterns are responding well to the large-scale programme of reedbed management and creation. And, in 2010, there was an increase in the number of booming male Bitterns to 87, up from 82 in 2009, and in the number of sites occupied by booming male Bitterns to 47, up from 43 in 2009. The bittern baby boom has also started, which is crucial not least because baby bitterns are adorable little ginger downy fluff balls with big green feet.
Finally, blog challenge time! Apologies in advance, but I am opening the floor to any of you game enough to have a go at crafting your own bittern joke. I have had one entrant already, given below, which I think is pretty good: ‘What did the scientist, who discovered an Arctic-nesting member of the heron family, decide to call it? …wait for it...’Frost Bittern.’ Excellent. You see, easily pleased me. If you think you can do better, then now’s your chance…