The emotional politics of curlew conservation

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

The emotional politics of curlew conservation

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Before chairing our event on curlews at the Hay Festival on Friday, I went to a lecture given by Karin Wahl-Jorgensen about “the emotional politics of Trump and the rise of angry populism”.  It seemed like a good way to warm up for our event and it was a sobering reminder of how anger has infected politics across the world with potentially dangerous consequences.  

During her talk, Karin quoted Immanuel Kant who said,

“All our knowledge begins with the senses, proceeds then to the understanding and ends with reason.  There is nothing higher than reason.”

The inference was that our current politics is stuck in ‘sensing’ mode feeding off emotion and that we are failing to move to understanding or reason.

I was reminded of this quote later in the evening during a question and answer session following Mary Colwell’s talk about her brilliant new book ‘Curlew Moon’.  There were some feisty exchanges about the impact of predation on wildlife with badgers and birds of prey in the firing line.  Despite being able to quote the findings of our recent review (of 81 relevant scientific papers and reports covering 908 cases where the effect of a predator on changes in the numbers of a prey species had been measured) of the impact of predation on wild birds, I failed to satisfy some in the audience that there is no evidence that birds of prey (e.g. buzzards) are having a population level impact on species like curlew.

The headlines from our review are that…

…Predator numbers have increased in the UK over the last decades.

…The UK has very high densities of red fox and crows compared to other European countries.

…Seabirds, waders and gamebirds are limited by predation whereas pigeons, raptors & owls, woodpeckers and songbirds are not limited by predation. A few exceptions to these general statements exist.

…There is a real need for research to understand how landscape-scale management could be used to provide longer-term sustainable solutions to reduce the numbers of generalist predators and their impacts on species of conservation concern.

As I have written previously, we use this science to inform our practice, guided by our own policy on how best to manage the impact of vertebrates on threatened species like curlew (whose UK population has nearly halved in three decades and of which the UK has about a quarter of the global population).

The RSPB is taking action where we can. For example, the curlew Trial Management Project is looking at the combination of habitat management and predator control required to stabilise breeding curlew numbers. We are also reviewing the work done for curlew on our own estate and have identified 27 priority reserves where we aim to improve management and enhance monitoring. Our bog restoration work with United Utilities at Dovestone has shown we can have a positive impact on curlew and other breeding wader populations.

But it’s clear that the RSPB (or any other organisation) can’t do this on our own. As curlew are widely dispersed across the landscape, if we are to make a difference for the species, then it will require working together with farmers, land-managers, other conservation organisations and communities.

And that message resonates so clearly in Mary Colwell’s book which documents her 500 mile walk from the west coast of Ireland to eastern England.   All the people she encounters are united in their desire to help restore the curlew population and it is a testimony to her curlew crusading skills that she has managed to bring disparate groups together to discuss curlew conservation. 

Now, the UK and Ireland Curlew Action Group (set up in 2016) co-ordinates and drives action for curlew across these countries following the framework provided by the international species action plan under the auspices of the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds. The RSPB chairs the group, which meets twice a year. There are representatives from the 4 statutory agencies, JNCC, NPWS Ireland, GWCT, BTO, WWT (Southern Curlew Forum) and Bird Watch Ireland.

We know that the decline in curlew across the UK is due to poor breeding success, which is linked to changes in land-use, primarily a reduction in good-quality habitat (changes in farming practices, conversion to forestry), and predation.  

That’s why we must all work together to grow our understanding of curlew conservation needs, and to continue to reason with politicians to ensure post Brexit reform of land management works for curlews.

You can find out more about the RSPB’s curlew work and how to help here.  If you are not yet convinced of the case for action, please do read Mary’s book!

Comments
  • An excellent, thoughtful piece. Sadly, we do not seem to be living in an age of reason. Facts are at a discount and all too often those parts of the media which are supposed to be impartial are reluctant to point out what's true and what's false, and think fairness is achieved by giving equal exposure to people who disagree, regardless of the merits of their arguments.

  • Whilst predation may or may not be a factor, there is a well established pattern of jumping on the nearest animal that could be involved in a rural problem - badgers and TB is the classic case. Yes, they may play a part but the message they are the main cause of TB in cattle is, and always has been, simply rubbish.

    As an agriculturist, it strikes me that it would be very interesting to go back through the many and varied changes in agricultural practice since 1940 - could, perhaps, the massive drainage campaigns of the 50s and 60s have had an effect on lowland wader populations ? Or more recently the nitrogen greening of what was poor grassland in the uplands of Wales ? Because the media - and to an extent conservation - always focuses on the latest issue (neonicitinoides today) the long trail of change that has gradually, but completely, transformed (and simplified) the ecological landscape - 70% of England - occupied by farming gets ignored. And some changes probably never really registered at all - for example, the loss of fallows following the introduction of Glyphosate.

  • I fear this topic will continue to go around in circles for many more years, as it has been in recent years.

    For example, the term, " there is no evidence", is regularly used. Unless people agree with the particular point being made, they will always disagree with the ‘science’ as it’s not disproving anything.  A far more effective argument is, "there is evidence...". Unfortunately, that costs money and time, and quite often will prove against the organisations trying to argue the case the other way!

    Secondly, foxes and carrion crows are ‘low hanging fruit’. Clearly, because of their large populations, they will be having a bigger effect on predation, and also they would be the least politically incorrect species to be controlling. I’m fine with the former point, but less so with the latter.

    Thirdly, it is very possible to prove a nest has failed when nest predation occurs. E.g. a predator takes the eggs. It is far less easy for statistics/science to prove a nest has failed because of an adult not making it through the breeding attempt. That will tilt ‘evidence’ towards nest predators and away from those who rarely, if ever, raid bird nests. The effect on the breeding attempt is still the same.

    Fourth, flooding is never mentioned in terms of failed curlew breeding attempts, yet, to my knowledge, it is often the cause of whole season’s breeding being wiped out for curlews in a given area. They don’t just have a history of breeding in upland areas.

    Fifth, curlews are shot and, to my knowledge, continue to be, along with other struggling and declining species. Clearly, any shooting of declining species, especially ones declining as fast as turtle dove and curlew, is ‘unsustainable’. Again, there is never any mention of shooting in curlew conservation articles.  

    I have no problem with predator control, and am in favour of it where it clearly needs to take place.