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Facts about the

Eurasian Curlew

Scientific name: Numenius arquata

Bird Family: Sandpipers, snipes and phalaropes

UK conservation status: Red

At a glance

  • Once very familiar and widespread but now lost to many sites.
  • One of UK’s most rapidly declining breeding birds showing 48% decline from 1995-2015.
  • To save the Curlew we need to rewet and rewild huge areas of lowland grassland.

 

The Eurasian Curlew (or the curlew) is Europe’s largest shorebird, and easily recognisable by its long, down-curved bill, brown upperparts, long legs and wonderfully-evocative, bubbling, call. Wetland birds, curlews breed in a range of habitats, but primarily favour rough grasslands, moorlands and bogs. In winter they feed in groups on tidal mudflats, saltmarshes and nearby farmland and are sometimes joined by Scandinavian-breeding birds taking advantage of our relatively mild winters. So common and familiar were these birds that they were once widely eaten, and featured in several ‘countryside cookbooks’. Up until 1942 you could still buy curlews in some UK butchers.

Curlews are no longer eaten. In fact, they are no longer common or familiar. According to the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) the curlew is now one of the UK’s most rapidly declining breeding bird species showing a 48% decline from 1995-2015 with this figure exceeding 50% in Wales and Scotland. Declines have hit this once widespread bird so hard that curlews were added to the UK Red List in 2015, making it a species of the highest conservation priority.

 

So what has happened? In a nutshell, the way we use and exploit land has changed, and Curlews have been hit hard on both their breeding and wintering grounds, putting them under pressure all year round.

Curlews need wet areas for feeding and dry areas for nesting, with varied but generally medium length vegetation. The rough, damp grasslands they use have been drained across the entire country, and reseeding and application of fertilisers and pesticides are producing identically level fields with few invertebrates available for food. Farms are also increasingly cutting for silage (fodder for livestock) in the spring, destroying nests and killing an unknown number of Curlew chicks (as distressing images on social media regularly show).

In the uplands huge areas of open moorland have also been dried out and converted to forestry, with the planting of Sitka spruce across miles and miles of land. Increased sheep grazing between the 1960s and 1990s meant that many breeding Curlew have been lost from the moorland fringe too. Sheep themselves may be a previously unknown threat to the Curlews that do nest in the uplands: in 2018 Springwatch aired a video of lambs accidentally trampling the nests of ground-nesting birds, and footage of a sheep eating Curlew eggs. As conservationist Chris Packham noted at the time, Given that we have 33 million sheep and only 68,000 curlews, it would be interesting to know what impact sheep may be having on our wading bird population, if any.” 

The estuaries and tidal flats that Curlews use in the winter are also used for agriculture, development, and recreation. The estuarine and coastal environment of the UK, where over a third of the human population live, has been changed enormously. England has lost about 85 per cent of its historic saltmarsh (a hugely important habitat providing food for birds particularly in the autumn and winter and high tide refuges for birds feeding on adjacent mudflats), estuaries have been lost or altered by draining, filling, damming, or dredging, and coastal towns have been developed right around the UK. Tourist accommodation, amenities and boat marinas are all built on the coastal margin, interfering with the natural coastal processes of erosion and deposition. Rising sea levels caused by the climate crisis are also predicted to flood the mudflats that curlews and other shorebirds depend on for feeding and roosting.

In reality, curlews are birds of whole landscapes rather than single habitats, and it is whole landscapes – from coastal flats and lowland rough grasslands to once remote uplands – that have changed so much. Protecting and restoring them is key, and while inordinately difficult is at least relatively uncontroversial.

However, while conservationists scramble to work out how to help curlews, this hugely threatened species has also been enthusiastically embraced by the shooting industry and its lobbyists – not, for a change, because they want to shoot it (they do, but it is now illegal to shoot curlews in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as they are protected at all times) but because they use curlews to justify predator control, a blanket term often used to bracket a whole section of our native biodiversity as a ‘problem’ or ‘vermin’ needing to be controlled. This is  especially true  on grouse moors where many of the remaining curlews breed.

Predation of upland and lowland  curlew chicks (largely by foxes) is undoubtedly part of the plethora of problems that curlews face. A December 2022 joint study reported in Ibis stated a failure rate of 86% of nests in an area of the Brecks because of nest predation, but went on to discuss predator-exclusion fencing and to say that “integration of Curlew-friendly policies into agri-environment schemes are likely to be of particular importance in maintaining breeding populations“.

‘Predator control’ can mean non-lethal measures like guarding-animals, deterrents and repellents, diversionary feeding, and fencing, but when it’s used by the shooting industry it almost always means the eradication of foxes, mustelids, some corvids and (illegally) the persecution of birds of prey.

Unsurprisingly data shows that curlews have higher breeding rates on grouse moors where the trapping, snaring, and shooting of predators takes place. But it would be extraordinary if removing all the predators from a landscape resulted in anything else. And it certainly doesn’t suddenly turn the shooting industry into the conservationists they portray themselves as, because the effect of killing foxes on curlews is entirely incidental.

Shooting estates are eradicating predators on grouse moors (and pheasant shoots) not to save curlews but to protect birds long enough to be sold to shooters. Grouse moor management creates up to ten times the natural density of Red Grouse on some moors: that attracts predators of course. Up to 40 million pheasants are released every year. The cycle of attracting animals like foxes to unnaturally ‘stocked’ shoots and then killing them appears to be endless.

 

 

No one wants to see the Eurasian Curlew disappear, of course, but besides the ethical questions raised by killing a suite of species (no matter how numerically common those species are) because ‘we want to save another’ (the curlew), we have to ask where does this killing lead? It is well-known that removing predators results in other predators of the same species moving in from areas where they’re not being killed, and can lead to ‘predator release’ where populations of medium-sized predators rapidly increase in ecosystems after the removal of larger, top carnivores. Supporting so-called ‘predator control’ can not possibly be the long term answer to curlew decline.

Protect the Wild acknowledges that conservationists are faced with a dilemma that can be difficult to resolve, but discussing the so-called ‘benefits’ of predator control without also highlighting the circle of destruction, the slaughter of up to half a million Red Grouse as well as of species that belong in moorland habitat, is wrong in our opinion. Let’s not forget too, that ‘predator control’ is also why Hen Harriers are one of the UK’s most persecuted birds of prey and why Golden Eagles are pinned down to remote areas along Scotland’s west coast.

Nature organisations will of course say that ‘predator control’ is a temporary measure while other solutions are put in place. We can rewild and re-wet small areas of the UK, perhaps mitigate against the worst impacts of the climate crisis, but we can’t ‘undo’ whole towns or coastal developments. It may well be that like so many species that have been forced out of their natural environment, there is no coming back for the curlew outside of nature reserves and a handful of sympathetic landowners. Meanwhile they are are gifting legitimacy to a cruel and destructive industry, and releasing a genie they will find impossible to put back in the bottle.

We need to be honest. The incidental protection of curlews is not ‘conservation’. Yes, curlews do benefit from the eradication of foxes on grouse moors, but shooting estates are actually creating conditions which attract ever more predators. They will say, therefore, that they ‘need’ to continue killing predators indefinitely: there is no exit strategy when grouse moor management is designed around maximising the population of just one species. How can any of us really support that?

A more practical experiment has begun using what is called ‘headstarting’. Under licence from Natural England, curlew chicks are raised artificially (and isolated from predators) by experienced aviculturists and then released into the wild when a few months old. 83 captive-reared Curlew were released successfully in 2019, over 130 in 2021 and a similar number in 2022. This approach has worked well with headstarted Black-tailed Godwits in the Ouse and Nene Washes, and conservationists think early-years survival rates might be as high as expected of wild-reared curlews. Despite the positive signs, it will be a couple of years until this year’s young birds start breeding – which is of course the crucial test of head-starting.

Shooting does not have the answer to the decline in curlews. That lies with real conservationists who are interested in the survival of the curlew for its own sake, not because it can be used as a justification for the never-ending killing of predators on shooting estates.

How will we end the shooting industry?