We published curlew stories all last week, in advance of a major conference on what to do about the much-loved bird’s decline, particularly in the southern English lowlands. Here the RSPB’s Chris Baker reports on #curlewconf...
Debbie Pain, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust’s director of conservation, kicked things off by quoting AW Bullen’s recent poem Curlews.
...What other sound could be like this?
“They are wonderful birds and one of the reasons people love them so much is that incredibly haunting call, it is unforgettable,” she said.
Her dot maps told the story: in the 1970s there were curlews recorded breeding in the uplands of northern England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and in many places in the southern English lowlands; they have now gone from a very large number of their former haunts.
The UK’s population has almost halved since the mid-1990s and the curlew’s breeding range has shrunk by about 17 per cent in recent years.
In the Republic of Ireland the situation is worse. Barry O’Donoghue, from the National Parks and Wildlife Service, said there were only 122 pairs known to be breeding in Ireland, a 97 per cent decline since the 1980s. “If we don’t take action for curlews we will lose them from Ireland in seven years, that’s how stark it is,” he said.
The Irish government is setting up a dedicated task force to reverse the decline, a direct result of a partner event to #curlewconf held last November. That was the big news of the day and proof, if proof is needed, that good things can happen.
What else speaks so well / of wilderness, of loneliness?
John Avon, of the Dartmoor Wader Project, produced one of those sharp-intake-of-breath moments, when he said only three curlew chicks had fledged on Dartmoor in the last 15 years.
Dartmoor... often described as southern England’s last wilderness. It would be too easy to forget they were ever there; the importance of not forgetting the call of the curlew had once been a part of many of our lives being one of #curlewconf’s recurring themes.
Tony Cross, reporting from the Shropshire hills, said there had been a 30 per cent decline there since 2014, adding about one recent breeding season: “Of our 33 nests we have had a total of zero chicks fledged, so there is a problem.”
Russell Wynn, of Wild New Forest, said there were probably only 50 pairs left there. “Ours is probably the biggest population left in southern England but we are playing with fewer birds than we thought.”
Mike Smart, from the Severn Vale, said of 35 pairs recorded breeding last year, mostly in ancient hay meadows, only six definitely produced young. “There is a severe risk that breeding waders are only going to survive on nature reserves in the very near future,” he said.
From the RSPB’s Somerset reserves Harry Paget-Wilkes had some better news. See his story here.
David Stroud, of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, confirmed the UK had a legal obligation to maintain the curlew’s range in the lowlands as well as the uplands, underwritten by wildlife legislation and international treaties.
Sarah Sanders, who heads the RSPB’s Curlew Recovery Programme, added: “The curlew is in a critical situation... it really is one of our most urgent and serious conservation priorities in the UK at the moment.”
Such trifling things as life and death / are kept in curlew’s calls...
“It is familiar but boy, it is so mysterious,” said Mary Colwell, one of the driving forces behind #curlewconf. “We try to put on the curlew’s shoulders our deep-seated angst about the natural world.”
She said curlews had had such a close relationship with people for so many generations – often representing our fear of storms, of death, or of the end of the world – that it would be shameful if they were allowed to disappear from southern England.
She said: “We will after today come up with really good solutions about what we can do about southern curlew populations.”
Natalie Meyer, from Naturschutzbund Deutschland, talked about her work in Germany – see here – finishing with a passionate “never give up”.
Nobody at #curlewconf is going to.
To find out more about curlews and our work visit: http://bit.ly/RSPBcurlewproject and http://bit.ly/RSPBcurlew
Frightening to think curlews are in such trouble. The UK’s population has halved since the mid-1990s. Today speakers and delegates gather at WWT Slimbridge on World Wetlands Day (2nd Feb) for the ‘Call of the Curlew’ conference. This major conference will focus primarily on the plight of curlews in southern England but will also have presentations giving both national and international perspectives. We look forward to actions emerging from this conference and keeping you informed.
This morning's post is from one of the speakers - the inspiring BBC producer and nature writer, Mary Colwell, who last year walked 500 miles to highlight the curlew’s plight - bringing the problem powerfully to attention.
People often talk about a north-south divide, and it usually refers to a cultural and economic division between the towns and cities of northern and southern England. The south is perceived as being wealthier and better resourced than the north. There is a bit of a north-south divide for curlews too, but you could say it is the other way round!
There is no disputing the fact that curlews throughout the UK and Ireland are in serious trouble, with declines across the board, but there are certainly more curlews in northern areas.
Photo 1: Curlew by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
They breed well on moors and upland fields and the majority of curlews today are found north of Birmingham. It therefore makes sense that this is where most of the research and conservation work is taking place. With far fewer birds in southern England, it is easy to sideline them. But that doesn't mean to say they are not important to those of us who live south of Brum, and that our cultural memory isn’t strong. They are as loved in the south as they are in the north.
Today’s workshop will celebrate the populations of curlews left down south and asses the main problems they face. We will then try to find solutions to see if it is possible to bring numbers back up to a healthy level.
During my 500-mile walk for curlews in the spring of 2016 I met many people who had treasured memories of curlews calling over lowland fields and flooded meadows. Some made a point of always walking out in the evening to listen to them. Others were visibly moved as they told me their stories of favourite curlew haunts that are now supermarkets, or rye grass for grazing.
Photo 2: Mary Colwell battles the elements to raise awareness of the curlews' plight
The south of England once had large numbers of curlews and their demise has been rapid. Let's hope we can bring them back so that everyone can enjoy that exquisite sound and the joy of seeing them flute and swoop over breeding grounds all over the country.
See more about Mary’s 500-mile walk for curlews at: http://www.curlewmedia.com/what-is-a-curlew/
Photo 3: Mary Colwell on her Curlew Walk