World Curlew Day 2023: working together to make a difference

To mark World Curlew Day (21 April) in today’s blog our Ornithology Adviser Dave Parish takes a closer look at the plight of the species in Scotland and what is being done about it.

A curlew taking flight ©Olivia Stubbington

The Eurasian curlew is a familiar bird of open country, often found nesting on upland farmland and moorland, usually where there is a bit of rough cover to hide nests. Its striking appearance and the musical display flight of the males during spring and summer make the curlew a highly evocative bird that is, unsurprisingly, much-loved. Outside of the breeding season, curlew retreat mostly to coastal areas where they are able to access their preferred invertebrate prey in the wet mud exposed as the tides recede – indeed, UK curlews are joined by breeders from other countries and the total number here more than doubles. But, like so many of our breeding farmland birds, the curlew is in trouble.

A curlew in Orkney ©Kim McEwen

Since 1995, curlew numbers have fallen by 60% in Scotland. This trend shows no sign of slowing as numbers fell by 18% between 2010 and 2020. The story is similar in Wales and, to a lesser extent, in England, though both these countries hold fewer birds than Scotland, and the change in the number of curlews corresponds to a notable contraction in the species’ range across the UK. This is made even more significant because the UK hosts around 25% of the global population of curlew, so what happens here will have a significant global impact.

Curlew in Orkney ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

So what is causing their populations to fall? Much has changed in the curlew’s traditional breeding habitats, many of which have been lost (to forestry for example) or changed. On farmland, for example, many areas of rough grassland have been improved, often by resowing with fewer species of faster-growing grasses, which are then subject to more intensive practices like silage production or increased stock densities. Many wet areas too have been drained to again facilitate more intensive uses. Such changes have been happening over a long period of time as pressures on farmers to increase food production have mounted, but the findings from recent research suggest that the most pressing threat curlew face now is from egg and chick predators. Most breeding curlew in the UK simply aren’t producing enough young each year to maintain the population because predator numbers, like foxes and crows, are relatively high, and perhaps because modern breeding habitats are simpler and nests within them are easier to find.

Curlew in long grass. ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

But let’s not lose hope! Conservationists have been aware of the curlew’s perilous status for some time and have begun developing and implementing plans to help them, and NatureScot is heavily involved in that. In 2015, conservationists declared the curlew to be the UK’s highest priority bird species for conservation action. Many readers will be familiar with environmentalist Mary Colwell’s sterling efforts in raising the profile of the curlew and indeed World Curlew Day was launched on the back of that. It is such efforts that focus the minds of many folk who can make a difference on the ground. Researchers and conservationists from countries throughout the curlew’s range now come together to share their findings and target resources where they are most needed.

Here in Scotland, the Working for Waders initiative is a partnership of like-minded organisations that promotes curlew conservation and supports projects on the ground to increase numbers and improve breeding success. With the right support and encouragement for farmers and others to maintain and create suitable habitat, and perhaps find ways of reducing predation pressure, there is hope for the curlew yet.

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