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Saving the Curlew: how fiddling while Rome burns has become the strategy of choice for the RSPB

Everyone says that one of the most pressing bird conservation issues is the continued long term decline in curlew numbers, both nationally and internationally. Many ground nesting birds are not doing well but the curlew is one of the most at risk of catastrophic collapse.

A great deal of research has gone into why this is happening, and what needs to be done to save the species.

In the lowlands it has been largely eradicated by a lethal combination of modern farming pressures (particularly the replacement of hay with silage) and predation by common generalist predators, such as foxes, badgers and corvids.

In the uplands it has fared better but it is only really doing well on, or adjacent to, well keepered grouse moors, where the habitat management and legal predator control allow it to breed successfully.

This has been understood for well over a decade and has been demonstrated scientifically repeatedly and incontrovertibly. The only people who are in denial about this are the ideologues who do not want to face reality when it conflicts with their prejudices.

Sadly this includes some individuals and organisations who have a disproportionate influence over national policy and decision making, including the ever-voluble Chris Packham.

Mr Packham seems to think the success of grouse moors is so irrelevant as to border on contemptible. To quote him, “There is no ambiguity, the collapse of these types of birds is not to do with shooting or predation, its to do with farming practices. These animals are limited to a few hotspots because they can't live anywhere else. It is an entirely artificial construct and we are in essence curlew farming.”

So one of the most powerful celebrity conservationists is very clear that the decline of curlew is nothing to do with predation and the success of grouse moor managers in keeping the species in existence can be contemptuously dismissed as 'curlew farming'.

This is in stark contrast with the views of Ian Newton, author of the seminal book, 'Uplands and Birds' and one time Chairman of RSPB. At a Conference on Dartmoor, where curlew are more or less extinct, he said, “On the rough grasslands of the uplands predation is likely to be by far the most important factor. This view is supported by the finding that grouse moors, with their stringent predator control, seem now to be the only places where curlew are still breeding well and maintaining their numbers.”

Unfortunately, in the world as we now find it, the ill-informed prejudice of a TV personality carries far more weight than the thoughtful conclusions of an internationally respected scientist.

But surely organisations such as RSPB and Natural England can be relied on to understand and accept the science and move quickly to do what is needed to save the curlew, even if the RSPB's celebrity Vice-President is blind to the science, they must surely create policy and take action on what the science says.

Well, actually, only up to a point and then only half heartedly. The Otterburn Study was published in 2010, twelve years ago. It was a long and elegant piece of research and it demonstrated that where efficient legal predator control by trained and committed gamekeepers took place, waders, including curlew, bred successfully and increased in breeding density.

Where there were no gamekeepers the birds were being predated out of existence. So both RSPB and NE have been aware of the problem and its solution for over a decade, well over in fact, as they were both kept informed about the project and its findings whilst it was taking place.

So if you have control of an area of upland grassland or moorland and you want curlews, you know what to do and you have known for years. Years during which the curlew has continued to decline on land owned and managed by the conservation industry as a whole, and RSPB in particular.

The shambles that is Lake Vyrnwy provides a simple example. Writing about the current state of predator control and curlew conservation on this more or less perfect curlew habitat in 2020, the RSPB said that their contracted pest controller had been out on 86 occasions, totalling 253 hours and killed 25 foxes, but despite all this effort the only curlew nest in the area had been predated before they could protect it. Glory be. I'm sure everyone is amazed that 86 foxing sessions, averaging less than three hours a session, did not save the last pair of curlew. Who would have thought that? That effort over a year would be about 3,000 hours less than would be put in by a committed moorland gamekeeper.

But it is far worse than that. We now discover that RSPB and NE have been jointly funding research (Curlew Solution Trials) into trying to find how to save the curlew without having to admit that the Otterburn Study provides a clear and simple blueprint for what to do.

For six years from 2015 to 2021 they spent thousands of pounds on a series of comparisons on sites in the north of England and elsewhere. They implemented what they call predator control on one site, whilst adjusting habitat on a matched site, with a third location where there were no interventions to act as a control.

The first question is why on earth did NE choose to work with RSPB on a project like this. We have struggled to understand why you would select as a research partner an organisation that does not like doing predator control, that is looking for any excuse to avoid doing predator control, that employs people who oppose predator control on ideological and ethical grounds and, perhaps most importantly, can identify no significant record of carrying out successful predator control on its own land or anybody else's.

The second question, is why they chose not act on existing scientific knowledge and make a policy decision to make predator control a key part of the curlew recovery strategy? Why waste six years before making a decision? Six years during which the curlew has continued to decline in range and numbers. Six years when the last birds have gone, perhaps forever, from places where the habitat was perfectly adequate. We don't know, and never will, because we can't get NE or RSPB to explain why they preferred to fiddle about with low grade, frankly pretend research, rather than get on and do the right thing.

Let there be no doubt this research, years of it, years of watching decline and doing nothing, was rubbish. Even if had been well done, and it wasn't, it would have proved nothing because the research model chosen was flawed from the outset. As it turned out, it was in practice bordering on farce from the beginning, and the six wasted years have advanced the debate not at all.

Here, in RSPB's own words, taken from their annual reports, are some insights into just how bad it was.

2016/2017 - Annual Report

“2016/17 Delivering predator control (PC) through paid contractors requires considerable work to ensure adequate risk management procedures are in place. This is especially pertinent to off-reserve, privately owned sites where RSPB has no management responsibility. This is the first time that RSPB has attempted to deliver PC at off-reserve sites. We have successfully contracted PC operatives at three of the six trial sites who are now, or will shortly be, undertaking control. At the other three sites it proved impossible to put all the contracting requirements in place, in time to commence control early enough in 2016 to have a meaningful benefit during the breeding season.

Delivering habitat management is also challenging at sites for a range of reasons including winter weather, designated site regulations (on and off-reserve) and ensuring that all management agreements with private landowners are in place at off-reserve sites. Despite this, we are very pleased that habitat management has been delivered this winter at five of the six trial sites.”

2017/2018 Annual Report

"The ability to deploy habitat management can be constrained by other site considerations, such as accessible topography and the presence of other sensitive species. We are therefore seeking to maximise management in areas free of such constraints, in order to manage sufficient area at each site

One of the main habitat management actions being implemented on these two sites is Molinia control, which is typically challenging due to the resilience of Molinia and its tendency to regenerate following control. We are therefore using repeat cutting in consecutive years, as well as trialling controlled burning and weed-wiping as alternative management techniques.

Fox control is technically challenging on these upland sites and we have therefore extended the period over which we are implementing the management, starting in early December, rather than Feb/March, in order to maximise the effectiveness of the control prior to the breeding season.”

2018/2019 Annual Report

"The cost of some habitat management interventions (e.g. rush cutting, topping, use of a softrak where necessary), combined with other limitations (e.g. weather over the autumn/winter/spring) may limit the amounts that can be conducted per site per year. However, we seek to deliver the maximum area feasible per site within budgetary constraints

Delivering predator control at a level sufficient to induce notable change in predator numbers, and responses by breeding waders, is challenging in upland landscapes with pressures such as forestry plantations. It may be that biological responses to interventions take time to become apparent.”

“The RSPB has been challenged by the XXXXX over the use of predator control as a management tool within the Curlew TMP. In November 2018, our predator control contractor was approached by members of XXX XXXX whilst out on site. Consequently, the predator control at the trial site in the Peak District was temporarily halted whilst we sought a new way of working on the site. Fox control has restarted in time for the breeding season but this has disrupted the predator control at the trial site in the Peak District.”

2019/2020 Annual Report

In the autumn of 2018 and over the 2019 field season, a major issue has been the potential disruption of predator control by animal rights organisations. Including an attack on RSPB on social media from the XXXXX and the XXXX. One of our contractors was confronted at our site in the Peak District, so we were concerned that they may focus attention on other areas.

The revocation of the General Licences by NE meant that we had to stop crow control for 3 weeks at Geltsdale and the Peak District until our contractors were granted individual licences. As the window for trapping territorial birds is only 7 weeks this may have impacted on the number of crows controlled.”

2020/2021 Annual report

Curlew productivity was variable between the field seasons, ranging between 0.14 and 0.44 on the trial sites and 0.16 and 0.81 on the control sites. In all years, the mean productivity for the two sites in Northern England was lower on the trial sites than on the control sites.

The results from the project were used to develop a LIFE project which is due to run from October 2020 – December 2024 and includes Geltsdale and Hadrian’s Wall Corridor. When utilising data collected on all sites, there has been no statistically significant difference in the temporal trend for Curlew abundance and productivity and predator abundance (both Foxes and Crows). This suggests that the habitat management and predator control carried out on the trial sites was not sufficiently effective in reversing/stabilising Curlew population declines on our study sites.

However, Curlew productivity declined with increasing length of linear features on a site, lower vegetation density and increasing Crow numbers. In addition, Fox abundance increased with woodland cover. Predation by both mammalian and avian predators appears to have a limiting effect on Curlew populations, directly and indirectly through the woodland edge-effect.”


So there we have it, in their own words. From the outset they realised that they were essentially out of their depth. Their level of practical competence was frankly abject. At no point did the performance on their trial sites reach, let alone exceed that of the sites where they were doing nothing. They admit that the animal rights fanatics pose a real and present danger to the conservation of ground nesting birds, including curlew, and that Packham, Avery and the other one, harmed their attempts to conserve curlew.

Even more amazing is the fact that this utter shambles, a perfect example of why the RSPB finds it beyond its ability to conserve populations of ground nesting birds in the wider landscape, was used to obtain €4.6million of EU LIFE funding to run a series of landscape scale projects intended to conserve nesting curlew. What did they tell them? “Look, we've just wasted shed loads of public money, incompetently managing vegetation and killing a few foxes and crows, and at no time have the sites we managed done as well as the places we weren't involved in. Can you give us a couple of million, so we can have another stab at it”

Even the EU LIFE fund would not have been that stupid, surely. But it keeps happening and the big grant givers happily reinforce failure. Are the decisions never subject to audit? Does anyone ever check who knows who, and how and why these apparently bizarre decisions are made?

But the research was not entirely wasted. Here are some of the lessons which can be learnt from this sorry tale of lost opportunity and incompetence. These are just a few, and you might spot many more:

Lesson One - Contractors, however good they are, are no substitute for skilled and committed full time employees. Hundreds of competent upland gamekeepers already do all the things that the contractors did, both predator control and vegetation management. They obviously do it far better than the RSPB, because they produce most of the curlew fledged in mainland UK, compared to RSPB performing worse than places where no conservation is taking place.

Lesson Two - Natural England is far too close to the RSPB. What other explanation is available for selecting RSPB as its delivery partner in this trial. There are several organisations that could have done the job better based on previous performance. Indeed, it would be hard to find one less suited to the task than RSPB.

Lesson Three - What RSPB calls predator control is always likely to fail as it does not include the use of legal humane traps to control small mammalian predators, such as rats, stoats and squirrels, and it limits fox control to shooting and refuses to use even modern breakaway snares or dogs to flush foxes. As far as corvids go, they won't use ladder traps and only kill crows during a very limited period, apparently just seven weeks. Taken together, what they call predator control, amounts to killing crows and foxes to achieve nothing, the very definition of a waste of time, and an almost perfect example of what gets predator control a bad name.

Lesson Four - From their comments it can be assumed that they are well aware of the darker side of the animal rights movement and are concerned about the safety of their operatives, and rightly so. This awareness makes their silence when these same people attack gamekeepers entirely reprehensible.

Lesson Five - RSPB make it clear that they are well aware of the threat to waders posed by the craze for forestry, but in public they seem suspiciously quiet. They go frantic at the news that a few acres of heather has been subject to legal cool burning. Yet when they are told by politicians, re-wilding zealots or the carbon offsetting industry that a moor, supporting a unique wildlife assemblage, including the embattled curlew, is going to disappear under trees, they cough politely and change the subject. Pathetic doesn't cover it.

Lesson Six - The commentary also makes it clear that the success of the whole project was to be judged on a false premise. Curlew were deemed to have breed successfully when their eggs hatched. We all know that this is nonsense. Success is not hatching, it's fledging.


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