In deference to the scientific papers that underpin them, stories in previous WaderTales blogs are expressed in facts and correlations, not emotions. This blog, which is in part a review of Curlew Moon by Mary Colwell, is a little more personal.
Curlew Moon – a special book
Curlew Moon, is based upon Mary Colwell’s walk from the West of Ireland to the East of England, raising money for the BirdWatch Ireland, BTO, RSPB and GWCT Curlew appeals and researching material for the book. She takes the reader into the stripped-bare peat bogs of central Ireland, shares the excitement of feeling the beating heart of a newly-ringed Curlew and meets some great people who care about Curlews in their own, local patches. The book is a fascinating blend of Curlews, agricultural history, culture and poetry – written beautifully.
Curlews are large waders that live long lives. The family to which they belong, the Numeniini, is not coping well with the speed with which the world is changing. Two species of curlew are probably extinct – functionally if not actually – and the godwit members of the family are faring little better. The blog Why are we losing our large waders? summarises an excellent review by the BTO’s James Pierce-Higgins and colleagues from thirty other organisations/institutions around the world. In it, they assess the stresses that humans are imposing upon curlews & godwits, through direct activities and the impact we all have on the climate. It’s not just our Eurasian Curlew that we need to worry about.
British breeders and foreign visitors
Mary’s walk from west to east began on 21 April 2016, so the bulk of her story focuses upon the Curlew breeding season. The book, however, starts with a couple of trips to see flocks that consist mostly of wintering birds, in Norfolk and the Moray Firth.
The Wash estuary, the bite out of the east coast of England, between Lincolnshire and Norfolk, holds up to a quarter of a million waders in some months, with a peak annual count of 8,000 or so Curlew. Mary went to Snettisham to see some of these Curlews for herself. Most of the birds had crossed the North Sea in the autumn, from countries such as Finland, Germany and even Russia. There are British-bred birds here too but these are in a minority. The WaderTales blog Is the Curlew really near-threatened? is also rooted in Norfolk. If a Curlew can live for 32 years and there are flocks of 1000 in Norfolk, why are they red-listed as a species of conservation concern?
Mary’s next trip was to the Moray Firth, where she met up with members of the Highland Ringing Group. Here, Bob Swann and his colleagues caught eight Curlew, in a mixed cannon-net catch of waders and gulls. I love the way that the strange activities of these dedicated, well-trained volunteers are described! The Curlews were all fitted with geolocators, to track their movements over the next twelve months. A previous bird had revealed a fascinating journey to Sweden and back, with only 53 days on her breeding grounds. She spends by far the largest part of each year in Scotland. What will these new birds tell us about the lives of our largest waders?
Habitat and predators
The long walk started in Ireland, where breeding Curlew are closest to extinction. In the Irish Republic, the latest survey revealed a breeding population of 124 pairs, down from perhaps 4,000 pairs in the 1980s. I had read about the causes of the demise of the Irish Curlew but Curlew Moon helped me to understand them. I could hear the silence that made an old man cry, I could see the rows of peat-devouring machines and I could understand the impact of changing farming methods. There may have been economic benefits (for some), associated with funding from the EU and the cessation of the Northern Ireland troubles, but Curlews have not been able to keep up with the changes that prosperity has delivered.
The situation is not dissimilar on the other side of the Irish Sea. In a paper reviewing associations between Curlew numbers in Britain and changes that may be causing them, Sam Franks and BTO and RSPB colleagues conclude that Curlew are less numerous and have shown greater population declines in areas with more arable farming, woodland cover and higher generalist predator abundance. Putting it simply, the key thing that conservationists should focus on are “habitat restoration and reducing the negative impacts of predators”. There’s more about this in Curlews can’t wait for a treatment plan.
In the book, Mary describes the disappointments experienced by the Curlew Country team in Shropshire; in the years 2015 and 2016, 32 nesting attempts yielded no fledged chicks. Foxes were the main problem – with additional pressure from other predators and farm machinery. There was better news in 2017, perhaps associated with more fox control; three chicks were raised naturally and others were head-started. By taking ten eggs at the point of laying, replacing them with dummy eggs, and switching again at the point of hatching, the team increased the total number of fledged chicks to eight. After two blank years, this was an encouraging success for the team.
Much has been written about grouse moors and waders. As Mary moved on towards the Staffordshire Moors and then The Peak District she knew that she would “come face-to-face with some of nature conservation’s most bitter conflicts”.
I shall not attempt to summarise the Curlews and Controversy chapter – read it for yourself – but Mary, who describes herself as “left-wing, vegetarian with vegan tendencies” and who has never even held a gun, found more Curlew on a grouse moor she visited in early April than anywhere on her walk.
By removing predators, burning heather to encourage new growth and keeping trees at bay, shooting estates create habitat that is good for both Red Grouse and Curlew. It also suits Hen Harriers which feed on the youngsters of both species. And that’s when the potential for conflict really starts!
One of the arguments in favour of grouse shoots is a financial one. If there is no shooting, land-owners are going to want a return on their investments and an obvious replacement is serried rows of non-native forestry. This will not only take away moorland but will also have effects beyond the woodland edges, due to the actual and perceived risks of predation.
There are conversations to be had about how space can be made for Curlews in upland farms and moors, while enabling these areas to be farmed profitably, or at least without loss. As Mary points out, if one farmer is being compensated for managing land in ways that suit breeding waders, the chance of success becomes vanishingly small if a neighbour receives subsidies to grow carbon-capturing trees. How can we ensure that planners understand the bigger picture?
Curlews need plenty of space and three WaderTales blogs talk about how farming and habitat heterogeneity might be impacting upon their success.
- Sheep numbers and Welsh Curlew reflects on the role of grazing in the decline in the number of breeding pairs in Mynydd Hiraethog.
- 25 years of wader declines talks about the association between losses in breeding wader populations and the way that land is farmed and managed.
- Establishing breeding requirements of Whimbrel focuses on the different habitat requirements of chicks and adults. Will Curlew research reveal similar diverse needs and reinforce the case for large-scale conservation initiatives?
In Curlew Moon, Mary writes about a day in Migneint moor, which lies to the south of Mynydd Hiraethog (mentioned above). Here, she and Rachel Taylor of BTO Cymru went in search of tagged Curlews that are contributing to a study Rachel is running with Steve Dodd of the RSPB. Four males have revealed the scale at which the species operates – “One bird flew a staggering 21 km away to a favoured feeding spot”. A paper in Wader Study by Steven Ewing and colleagues suggests that birds are highly variable in the way they use the landscape; two of their males travelling 1.6 km each evening but one bird staying close to the nest. Curlews need more space than perhaps we appreciated.
The people who care
In researching for her new book, Mary Colwell seems to have learnt as much about the people who study and love Curlew as she has about these special birds. From her close encounters with cannon-netters, using geolocators to chart Curlews’ movements, through to gamekeepers who control predators, Tom Orde-Powlett managing a grouse shoot and others who are improving breeding habitats and monitoring nesting success, she focuses upon the respect so many people have for this fast-disappearing species. At the same time, she shares her own passion for this emblematic bird, the haunting calls of which echo across too many abandoned moors.
Curlew Moon is published by William Collins. ISBN 978-0-00-824105-6
WaderTales blogs are written by Graham Appleton, to celebrate waders and wader research. Many of the articles are based on previously published papers, with the aim of making wader science available to a broader audience.