Curlew - Neal Warnock
Curlew (Numenius arquata). Neal Warnock

The curlew is probably one of the most recognisable UK birds, certainly away from those that share our gardens.  Even if you have not been fortunate enough to encounter this wader, or even if the image of the impossibly long down-curved bill is not familiar, then their calls will form part of your consciousness.  

The haunting, mournful ‘curlee’ appears through literature and films, a sound that captures the remote, open and at times bleak essence of our estuaries and moorlands. The novels of the Bronte sisters and the poetry of Dylan Thomas, WB Yeats and many others would have been written with curlew as part of their soundscape.

But the mournful ‘curlee’ is only part of the curlew’s repertoire, their bubbling rising song, heralds the end of winter and rebirth of the uplands, with the fullness of spring still in anticipation. This bubbling was once commonplace over our meadows and grasslands but curlews have seen dramatic population declines within living memory.

Lost Generation

To be blunt the curlew is in serious trouble. There are now many parts of the UK and Ireland that no longer hear their call. The numbers of breeding Curlew across the UK have dropped by half in a generation, those that remain are largely in the uplands with fewer than 300 pairs remaining in southern England. Across the Irish Sea the situation is even worse with fewer than 150 pairs remaining in the Republic of Ireland, a catastrophic decline of 96% in just 30 years.

Many of the remaining birds struggle to breed successfully and in these areas are at real risk of imminent extinction, their calls and song instead a symbol of living ghosts. Declines are not just restricted to these areas, UK and Irish farms are home to over a quarter of the world’s breeding population, global extinction is a real possibility.

Curlew Numenius arquata, adult female standing in field on upland farm. Credit: Ian Francis/
Curlew Numenius arquata, adult female standing in field on upland farm. Credit: Ian Francis/

This may seem far-fetched but of the eight curlew species worldwide, two, the Eskimo Curlew and the Slender-billed Curlew, both disappeared at the end of the 20th Century and are considered extinct, our Curlew is one of three others of this clan on the same path. We simply cannot lose the call of the curlew.

What is driving the decline? 

Curlew are long-lived, over 30 years in some cases, and should be able to maintain stable numbers if each pair raises one chick every couple of years. Unfortunately, in many areas breeding success is much lower, meaning once older birds die others are not there to continue the line.

Curlew Chick - Neal Warnock
Curlew chick. Photo credit: Neal Warnock

The loss of suitable habitat has been a main cause of this poor breeding success with increases in forestry, drainage and the move to intensive silage rather than traditional late hay cut particularly damaging. These land use changes have also helped boost predator numbers, especially foxes and crows, leaving nature unbalanced in today’s heavily modified landscapes.

The challenge

The plaintive cry of the Curlew has been answered across the UK and Ireland, a new impetus has brought people together to make a difference and improve the prospects for this iconic bird. One such place is Glenwherry in Northern Ireland

Here, as elsewhere, curlews return to their breeding sites in early March, remaining faithful to valleys and even fields where they’ve bred before. Preferred nesting sites are rough pasture and moorland, habitats which provide a mix of both open areas to feed and dense bits of vegetation in which to hide their nests. 

Glenwherry is in the southern Antrim Hills, and regular RSPB monitoring has recorded around 50 breeding pairs. This is around 10% of Northern Ireland’s remaining curlew; as recently as the 1980s there were 5,000 pairs in the country.

Curlew - Neal Warnock
Curlew in flight. Photo credit: Neal Warnock

The area is a mosaic of habitats, including pristine blanket bog, dry and wet heath, unimproved grasslands, rushy pastures and improved grasslands – all of which help support farming and nature. This was an ideal site to set up a landscape partnership to halt and reverse the decline of this iconic species. Currently over 30 farmers manage an area of over 3,500 hectares for curlews and other breeding waders. With support and advice, the members can ensure their farming operations support breeding success, through delayed mowing, suitable grazing and, if required, creating improved habitats.

These landscape scale initiatives rely not only on the support and enthusiasm of the farmers but the local community and being able to sell quality produce to the market at a fair price. This approach combined with suitable agri-environment funding that supports farmers to manage their land for food and wildlife will hopefully ensure that Glenwherry’s curlew population is still bubbling away to inspire future generations.

Thank you to Kevin Rylands, Fair to Nature Conservation Adviser, and Katie Gibb, RSPB’s Conservation Officer for Antrim Plateau for this blog.

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