Conservation Adviser for RSPB Scotland, Dan Brown, tells us about the status of the curlew in the UK and the work that needs to be done to safeguard the future of this bird.
Working across the flyway to save birds like the curlew
Migratory birds undertake truly awe-inspiring journeys. The long-haul flights of many species sees entire populations travel thousands of miles - epic journeys that span countries, oceans and continents. They visit different habitats in different countries at different times of the year. And in doing so, they showcase the interconnectedness of our living planet; wildlife that is shared with peoples and cultures at other ends of the world.
In our part of the world, birds migrate along one of the three major African-Eurasian flyways. There is one special Scottish bird, the red-necked phalarope, that prefers a more Latino-inspired winter, but the rest travel across Europe, Africa and the Middle East; from northern breeding grounds to southern wintering grounds, then back again the following year.
Hundreds of years ago, species would undertake these annual cycles year in, year out, until they died of natural causes – like old age, starvation, or predation. Nowadays, surviving the annual cycle is a much more gruelling affair. On top of natural causes, add a whole raft of man-made hazards - like illegal hunting, collisions with power lines, or loss of coastal habitats to development. We call these possible sources of habitat loss and mortality ‘threats’.
Some threats have more of an impact than others. Some pose threats for particular species only. Some threats are only present in certain countries or regions. But they all add up, and often, it is the combination of threats across the flyway that drives population declines. And so to stop population declines, we must act to reduce the impact of threats across the flyway. That requires international cooperation – so that all countries understand the threats, their impacts and conservation solutions. And this is what an international conservation agreement called the African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement - or AEWA - is for.
Earlier this month I attended an AEWA conference. In attendance were governments from across Europe, Africa and the Middle East, alongside numerous NGOs. The meeting was to discuss, debate and agree on pressing issues facing migratory birds – such as how to reduce poisoning of waterbirds from lead ammunition and how to reduce the impact of marine fisheries on seabirds.
In addition, international conservation plans for several species were on the agenda, from the prehistoric-looking shoebill to the stunning grey-crowned Crane, as well as a bird of particular relevance to Scotland and the res of the UK: the curlew.
Our recent work has made us realise just how important the UK is for the curlew: we may host 28 per cent of the global breeding population – we are a global stronghold for the bird. Yet our population is declining rapidly (by 46 per cent between 1995 and 2013) and the Eurasian curlew, to give it its full name, was classified as globally near threatened with extinction by the IUCN in 2007.
In terms of global conservation status, this puts it on a par with the Jaguar. And worryingly, many other shorebirds that the UK supports in good numbers, including lapwing and oystercatcher, have just joined that list.
It seems only right that, where possible, countries that are most important for a globally declining species should lead the global conservation effort. And that is exactly what the RSPB is doing.
Together with the UK’s statutory agencies, we have written a paper highlighting why the curlew is our top priority bird species from a global conservation perspective. We have also kick-started a programme of work to help save curlews in the UK. And lastly, recognising the need to work with other countries across the flyway, we produced an international conservation plan, which was adopted at the AEWA meeting earlier this month.
At home, we need to ramp up efforts to safeguard our important breeding population. We need to identify really important breeding areas and protect them from threats, such as poorly-sited wind farms and forestry plantations.
Conservation and farming communities need to work together. We need to target agri-environment funding - to support sensitive farming practices in important breeding areas. We are already making excellent progress on this front, through farmland wader conservation projects in Strathspey and the Clyde Valley. However, we need similar projects in other important breeding areas.
This is just the start. We look forward to working with partners in the UK and across the AEWA region to save Europe’s largest wader. In doing so, we’ll ensure the curlew’s bubbling song continues to be heard across northern Europe during the spring and summer; that it is afforded safe passage during spring and autumn migration; and that coastal regions of Europe, Africa and the Middle East can continue to provide a home for flocks of curlew during the winter.