Ireland’s Curlew Crisis

To put the rapid loss of Ireland’s breeding Curlew into context, it’s equivalent to the human population of the Republic dropping from 4.8 million to less than 200,000.

blog muddy edgeIn their paper in Wader Study, the journal of the International Wader Study Group, Barry O’Donoghue and his colleagues reveal the results of the 2015-17 survey of breeding Curlew in the Republic of Ireland. The emerald isle used to be a haven for Curlew but there are now dire warnings that the species could be lost as a breeding species. Various estimates suggest that there were between 3,300 and 12,000 pairs in the 1980s but the current number may be as low as 138 pairs. That’s a fall of 96% in about thirty years.

The latest survey

Surveys in the summers of 2015, 2016 and 2017 focused upon areas that were known to hold breeding Curlew in the previous few years. Sites were identified, using data from Bird Atlas 2007-11 (BTO, BirdWatch Ireland & SOC), the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) and BirdWatch Ireland, and then extended by 3 km to try to cover any satellite pairs. Additional records were sought from NPWS Rangers (who actively monitor wildlife in their patches across the country) and BirdWatch Ireland branches, supported by a public appeal, using traditional and social media. For details of the survey methods, please see the paper ( link below).

Doing the sums

blog habitat

Loss of habitat is a major issue for Ireland’s Curlew – blocks of forestry and fragmentation.

Volunteers and staff, who surveyed previously-occupied areas, discovered 128 breeding pairs during the summers of 2015-17. Nationwide publicity added an additional ten pairs, making a minimum count of 138 pairs of breeding Curlew in the whole of the Republic of Ireland. When comparing this figure to historical estimates of national populations, the authors use the conservative figure of 3300 pairs, which is at the lower end of the smallest estimate. This suggests a drop of 96%. If the highest previous estimate of 12,000 pairs had been used, we would be talking about a decline of 99%.

blog chick

Curlew chicks are a rare sight – productivity is very low in Ireland

Curlew were recorded at densities of approximately three pairs per 1,000 ha of suitable habitat (0.3 pairs per km2). This suggests that, in these occupied areas of raised bog, wet grassland, wet heath and upland blanket bog, Curlew are living in similar densities to those of the 1980s. They are just found in a much reduced total area.

One positive finding is that 56% of the surveyed Curlew population occurs in protected sites, whether Special Protection Areas (SPAs) or Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) designated under European legislation, and/or Natural Heritage Areas (NHAs) designated under national legislation.


The focus of the 2015-17 survey was upon sites that were known to hold Curlew during the period between 2007 and 2014. In an ideal world, there would have been surveys of randomly selected areas in other parts of the country, to establish the number of birds that might have been missed. This would have been an expensive exercise and the consequences are probably not particularly significant because:

  • blog mapDuring the breeding seasons of 2008 to 2011, the whole of Ireland was covered for the Bird Atlas.  The map alongside shows the breeding distribution from this joint BTO, Birdwatch Ireland and SOC project. It shows that there are many areas that no longer have breeding Curlew (black triangles).
  • Curlew are highly site-faithful. Birds are long-lived and unlikely to move between years, so any site occupied in 2011, for instance, would be expected still to hold some of the same birds four years later.
  • Curlew return to breed close to areas where they were raised. The 3-km buffer zone is likely to have picked up young birds setting up their own territories, although precious few chicks fledge successfully these days, anyway.
  • The Curlew is a much-loved bird. A major publicity campaign led to the discovery of only 10 pairs outside the main study areas. If a further 30 pairs were missed (which seems high, representing only a 25% success rate in the call for additional records) then this would only change the ‘96% decline’ headline to a ‘95% decline’.

blog numeniiniWhat has gone wrong?

This blog focuses on the results of the 2015-17 Irish Curlew  survey. Previous WaderTales blogs provide information that sets these declines in context and discuss the problems being faced by the species.

There is a global crisis for large waders as you can read in this review: Why are we losing our large waders?

Each autumn, Irish Curlew are joined by thousands of migrants, largely from Finland, Sweden and Britain. There are still large flocks of Curlew in winter, so it may be hard to persuade people that the Curlew is in trouble. Here are the arguments: Is the Curlew really near-threatened?

blog migration map

The key issue for breeding birds is habitat loss, as discussed in Mary Colwell’s excellent book Curlew Moon, reviewed here: Curlew Moon.

A review of the associations between Curlew and their habitats suggest that conservation action needs to focus on habitat restoration and reducing the impacts of predators (the latter, at least in the recovery phase): Curlews can’t wait for a treatment plan.

The way that land is grazed has a major impact on breeding Curlew: Sheep numbers and Welsh Curlew.

Acknowledgements and action

blog logoThe 2015-17 survey in Ireland was commissioned by the National Parks and Wildlife Service. Confirmation of the severity of the decline led to the establishment of a Curlew Task Force in January 2017 and a Curlew Conservation Programme, aimed at increasing the productivity of remaining Curlew pairs. CCP logo adapted from original artwork by Anne Harrington Rees.

blog habitat creation

Fencing and habitat creation

This study has identified strongholds for breeding Curlew in the Irish Republic and conservation action is currently being implemented in Donegal, Kerry, Kildare, Galway, Leitrim, Mayo, Monaghan and Roscommon. For information on what is an innovative approach to tackling the Curlew crisis, read more about the National Parks and Wildlife Service’s Curlew Conservation Programme here.


The full paper is in the journal Wader Study. Click on the title below for a link:

O’Donoghue, B., A. Donaghy & S.B.A. Kelly. 2019. National survey of breeding Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata in the Republic of Ireland, 2015–2017.

Wader Study 126(1): doi:10.18194/ws.00130

blog footer

GFA in Iceland

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.


29 thoughts on “Ireland’s Curlew Crisis

  1. When I started reading your blog I was thinking you were heading towards pollution being likely, but seeing the atlas slide and the extent of the black triangles, it’s shocking to see the decline is so evenly spread across the whole of Ireland/NI.
    As you mention, habitat loss is the likely indicator. Has sheep farming coincidently increased that significantly since the 80’s to have had such an even impact?

    Just thinking out loud as an aside thought, and it was a long time ago now, but have any studies regarding Chernobyl fallout been thought about or carried out? Overwintering in affected areas, such as Norway/Finland?

    (As this is or has been deemed significant in NI and areas of Wales & Scotland since 1986 even to 2010, and covers a large land mass – Wikipedia)

    Thanks Graham for your good blogs as usual.


    • In response to Peter Howe’s thoughts on nuclear fallout from the 1986 Chernobyl accident, I understand that Ireland was subject to significant fallout as far South as the Kerry mountains. I recall that there was contamination of mountain grazing sheep. Ireland was not fallout free.
      If we need to examine nuclear fallout as a possible factor in Curlew and Wader population decline, the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland readings taken around Ireland in 1986 and thereafter by RPI and other scientists may be useful.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I believe the collapse in upland ground nesting birds can be traced back to the overgrazing disaster of the ’90s not the overgrazing per se but the high mortality rates of sheep in that period which fuelled a massive rise in corvids which spread out across all available areas. they relentlessly predated the chicks of all speices and have exhausted several generations of breeding adults. if the efforts an finance that was spent reintroducing often contentious raptors was applied to protecting what we have we would be better off. as a child a hooded crow was an unusual sight now there are flocks of them if we want to save our curlews etc hoodies and magpies need to be reduced by >90% country wide .this many not be popular or PC but that is what might give our few breeding pairs a chance .


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  6. Would love to have them back at my Hillfarm again but unfortunately I spend to much time draining land and now realise my mistake.
    Would like to undo some of this damage.
    Is there any help for this eg grants


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