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A silent prayer for the curlew

As part of World Curlew Day, we thought we would take this opportunity to share with you a short extract from Jamie Blackett’s brilliant and insightful book, ‘Red Rag to a Bull’ where he talks about the curlews that wintered by his house in Dumfries and Galloway, the House on the Shore.

‘Throughout October, the shore starts to echo with the plaintive cries of waders. And flocks of knots and stints fly backwards and forwards over the sea in silvering murmurations. It is for us the second symphony of the year. The spring birdsong of the woods and fields is a distant memory, and now we wake to the haunting clarinet lament of the curlew. As many waders, particularly the curlew, are endangered species, it is always a relief to see them back. They have moved back from the uplands, where they went for the summer to breed.

When we lived partly in the Yorkshire Dales, I would fondly imagine that the ones we had nesting in our hay meadows were the same ones that wintered outside the House on the Shore. We would watch them as they flew round and around in circles during their courtship, piping strange primeval cries. Then, later, after we had waited for them to fledge before cutting the hay, sometimes we would see the curlew poults with their odd looking, half-formed curved bills, like creatures in Jurassic Park.

Now that we live here full-time, I rarely see waders when there is not a ‘r’ in the month, with the exception of some oyster catchers, unless I am lucky enough to be invited to shoot grouse. For it is on the grouse moors that many of them breed and, being a keen twitcher, I relish a visit to a well-keepered moor as much for what I can see as for the shooting. Up on the moor, where the land meets the sky and the colour and the light make it seem like the inside of a rainbow, one feels doubly alive, braced by the wind and watching the cloud shadows chasing each other across the hillsides.

Crouching in a butt, scanning the horizon for the first covey, the eye is pleased by a carefully manufactured patchwork of purple heather, moor, grasses, blueberries and bents of differing thickness and colour. Here and there it is a smoky grey from burning in the spring, or bright green with new regrowth where it is feed for grouse, hares and sheep alike, or a tired-looking autumn brown where it provides thick cover.

And, as a consequence, one is usually rewarded with sightings of other birds: golden plover flashing past, wheaters, and perhaps in the distance a hen harrier dancing on the breeze (they are not as rare as sometimes portrayed and much more likely to be seen where there is a healthy population of grouse).

It should not be any surprise that what is good for grouse is good for most other species. The relentless assault on foxes, crows, ticks and worms by keepers, paid for by the proceeds of grouse shooting, provides a lifeline for vulnerable species like the curlew and the redshank. Yet, ironically, it seems that the Axis has grouse shooting in its sights now that they have their hunting bans. The Axis strategy is plain to see. They hope to ban heather burning and moor drainage and, above all, to make ‘wildlife crime’ into such an issue that politicians are pushed by public opinion to regulate and eventually ban grouse shooting. If they succeed, the heather hills will be covered in sitka spuce and the effects will be heard across a silent Solway each winter.

We are powerless to do much to help the curlews here – their critical tie is in the spring – except by ensuring that our livestock farming maintains a healthy worm population to feed them inland when the tide is in. And when our curlews leave for Solway for their summer breeding grounds, I always say a silent prayer for them, hoping that they will head for a well-keepered grouse moor somewhere and not the RSPB’s upland reserve at Geltsdale, which is said to have a silent spring now.’

Red Rag to a Bull – Rural Life in an Urban Age is available from all good bookshops:

For more information on staying at the House on the Shore please see:


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