The plight of breeding Eurasian Curlews Numenius arquata was identified in 2015 as the most pressing UK bird conservation priority (Brit. Birds 108: 660–668). Drivers of long-term population decline include land-use changes in the uplands (such as drainage and afforestation); land management in the lowlands (such as rolling, harrowing and earlier grass cutting); and the impact of predation on nests and young. A further threat looms as shooting is set to recommence in France this autumn and is likely to affect British breeding birds wintering there. In the face of these multiple pressures, over the last 30 years Curlews have already been lost from most of Northern Ireland (-90%), southern England (-60%), much of Wales (-80%), and significant parts of the uplands.
These issues have been receiving increasing attention, however, not least because of the cultural significance of the Curlew. Several local initiatives, particularly in southern England, have involved working with farming communities not just to monitor numbers but also to protect nests and young, and have had some success. The RSPB is undertaking a Curlew Trial Management Project, focusing on the northern uplands, and we await the results.
At a national level, there have been meetings in Ireland (in 2016), England (2017), Wales and Scotland (2018) to pool expertise and identify priorities. In addition, World Curlew Day was instigated in 2017. Meanwhile, examples of growing political awareness are the plight of the Curlew being the subject of a parliamentary Westminster Hall debate in October 2017 (https://tinyurl.com/yy579u4y), and the species being highlighted in the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan published in 2018. Indeed, there are now Curlew Champions in the UK and Scottish Parliaments, and the Welsh Assembly. Here, we summarise the main conclusions of a recent briefing session for those Champions and the country conservation agencies of Scotland, Wales and England.
So, lots of talking, but is there enough action? Ultimately saving (and restoring) our breeding Curlews means turning a land-use supertanker. As the statement below outlines, the problem has multiple aspects. Fundamental will be the design and implementation of appropriate agri-environment policies. But what happens in farming closely follows market forces and, with economic margins so small (and uncertain) for many farmers, it will be critical that new schemes are financially attractive. Further, it will be crucial that any package of ‘Curlew-friendly’ initiatives is promoted on the ground by sufficient farm advisors (themselves a highly threatened species following recent cutbacks). Advisors will be vital to engage with the farming community, encouraging support and uptake. Furthermore, given that predator management will be a significant component, there are important issues in terms of raising public awareness.
The need for widescale practical action has never been more urgent.
Mary Colwell and David Stroud
Statement from the Curlew Summit, July 2019
A meeting to discuss the pressing conservation issues surrounding breeding Curlews in the UK was held at No. 10 Downing Street on 8th July 2019. It was attended by representatives of conservation NGOs, game and landowning interests, as well as ornithologists closely involved with the Curlew. The aim was to brief Lord John Randall and the three Parliamentary Curlew Champions: Jake Berry MP, Lewis Macdonald MSP and Mark Isherwood AM as well as those representing government departments and statutory conservation agencies for England, Wales and Scotland. This statement reflects key points from the discussion (which cannot be taken as necessarily reflecting the views of all those represented).
1. Addressing and reversing the causes of Curlew declines is imperative because of the species’ cultural importance to people; its role as an ecological umbrella species; and our obligations to fulfil country, UK and international legal requirements. Population modelling shows that in large parts of the UK, extinction is likely within one to two decades if current trends continue.
2. A good start has been made with current initiatives, but typically these are: too small and localised; unfunded or lacking medium-term funding security; and/or uncoordinated.
3. Curlew breeding success is affected by multiple issues, some particularly severe and widespread, which vary geographically. These are principally: predation of nests and young; mortality during grass rolling, harrowing and cutting; upland afforestation; recreational disturbance (especially from dog walking); changes to grazing regimes; and/or land abandonment. These multiple causes often interact.
4. The impact of reopening shooting in France during the non-breeding season will affect British breeding Curlews. For example, we know that Curlews from both Shropshire and the New Forest (Hampshire) overwinter in France.
Conservation measures needed
5. Close engagement with the farming and landowning community is critical in order to share ownership of the issues and create solutions. This needs actions at all scales from local to national. Working with farmers on Curlew conservation will also give multiple benefits to other ground-nesting birds, wildflowers and insects and potentially create a template for improved partnership between farmers and conservationists.
6. Effective agri-environment and other land-management schemes are critical for Curlew conservation. These schemes need to be effective, economically viable, flexible, targeted and learn from existing initiatives. Effective land-management schemes will: provide adequate compensation for Curlew-friendly grassland management; provide adequate compensation for intervention measures to increase hatching and fledging success across all habitats; monitor effectiveness and outcomes as a critical element that allows progressive adaptation of measures; have adequate funding for advisors to promote and encourage local uptake; build on the successful ‘farmer cluster’ model; focus actions in target areas (for example clusters of farmers working with local conservation groups and volunteers) to develop and refine knowledge of effective actions that can be implemented more widely (and the identification of these target areas is a priority); and provide funding for both predator deterrents and legal and targeted predator control by well-trained practitioners using best-practice methods at a sufficiently wide scale.
7. Ambitious, long-term and collaborative research to understand the reasons why predators are so abundant, and to identify landscape-management solutions to the problem. A number of solutions to unsustainable predation rates are available, including lethal predator control, but most suffer from some combination of high cost, difficulty, or controversy. At the same time, high generalist-predator abundance is a pervasive problem for British wildlife.
8. ‘Head-starting’ may be necessary to sustain local populations until land management and predation issues are addressed. Similarly, head-starting (artificially incubating eggs and subsequently releasing fledglings) can be used to return populations to areas where they have been lost. However, this is costly and does not resolve the underlying problems. Accordingly, it is essential that head-starting integrates with broader Curlew recovery planning. National coordination of head-starting initiatives to ensure best practice, shared learning, use of resources (including available eggs) and reporting would be beneficial.
9. Targeted surveys in identified hotspots are essential to provide baseline data for conservation measures. A full national survey would provide valuable information for targeting land-management schemes and would also be valuable in helping to raise the public profile of Curlew conservation needs. Resourcing such a survey should not be at the expense of practical conservation actions.