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Hope for the future of the curlew, despite ridicule of RSPB's 'selective predator control' scheme

The news that the Curlew Recovery Project will not be run by the RSPB has been greeted with relief in many quarters.

That the RSPB had positioned itself to take control was clear. It had been subsidised for years by Natural England to research into whether habitat manipulation could remove the need to carry out predator control, and it had received millions of euros from the EU to try to save curlew on some of its best curlew sites, in part on the basis that it was uniquely positioned to deliver partnership working for curlew.

So it looked as if it was a foregone conclusion that they would get the nod. But for some reason it didn't turn out that way. Let us all be grateful.

They will of course be involved, and they will of course try to take control, but for once an important species recovery project will include at least one person who manages land used for shooting and who has an enviable track record in producing fledged curlew, and the project will be chaired by Mary Colwell, one of the very few outside our community to have the courage to speak truth to the vested interests of the charitable conservation industry. For those who have not already read her book, Curlew Moon, it is well worth a read and can be ordered here.

The task they face is enormous. It may be that in many parts of the country the curlew is beyond redemption, but that is no reason for not trying. It is a wonderful bird that brings joy to wherever it breeds and it must not slip into history because people weren't brave enough to make the difficult decisions required to save it.

Changes in farming, in particular the replacement of hay-making by silaging, and the draining of marginal grassland, are major factors. The former problem destroys eggs and chicks, the latter makes foraging for food harder and less productive.

The other great problem, shared with many other ground nesting species, is the vexed question of predation, something that few in the conservation industry are willing to discuss, let alone explain to their funders that it is something they need to do.

There are other less obvious problems, such as trees and the increasingly hysterical pursuit of a ban on heather burning. The snake oil salesmen who haunt the fringes of the conservation industry can't believe their luck as one gullible politician after another accepts the idea that covering an open landscape with trees will save the planet, and avoid any need to annoy the voters by suggesting that they might adjust their clothing rather than the heating.

Of course it is often a good idea to increase tree cover, but it has to be the right trees in the right places and those places are emphatically not where curlews are currently doing well.

When the southern Cheviots were planted with trees, it was estimated that at least 1,750 pairs of curlew disappeared, for the simple reason that the open habitat they needed had gone, replaced by trees. A further loss of 5,000 pairs is calculated to have occurred as a result of the forestry planting in Galloway.

But even planting near curlew country can be disastrous. There was an interesting piece of research, published as long ago as 2014, (Douglas et al) which looked at the changes in curlew numbers over an 8-10 year period on 77 moorland sites in southern Scotland and northern England.

What the researchers found was that the greater the amount of forest within 1 km of a study site, the greater the decline in curlew numbers. They also found that the greater the number of gamekeepers within 1 km of each site, the less the decline or the greater the increase in curlew numbers. These findings pointed to the role that predation played in the success or failure of curlew. It was calculated that if forest cover within 1 km of a site increased from none to as little as 10%, the human predator control effort had to increase by nearly 50% just to keep the curlew population steady.

These are all reasons why grouse moors are so important to curlew. But even on these moors, they are not safe from the dead hand of the regulator, goaded by single issue fanatics. Curlew are open country birds, and grouse moors are open country, but not all open country suits their needs. They do not nest or feed in long vegetation, and if the vegetation is not managed it soon becomes too long for the adults, let alone their chicks, to even walk through. Thus the plan promulgated by RSPB, and their allies in the League Against Cruel Sports, Wild Justice and the Daily Mirror, to stop rotational burning, is simply another way to ensure that curlew decline and disappear. The same applies to other species such as mountain hare and golden plover. Almost incredibly some NE staff are now saying that numbers of waders , including golden plover and curlew are “artificially high” on grouse moors and it will not be a problem if they decline.

In case you doubt that anyone can be that biased that they would rather see rare birds decline than manage the moors as has been done for centuries, the National Trust's vision document for the Peak District contains the following statement.“Research indicates that some species such as golden plover are artificially high in some areas of degraded blanket bog. We would be prepared to accept reductions in overall numbers of particular species if favourable condition of habitat leads to this result, provided the species remains viable”.

There is a mass of research that proves beyond any doubt whatsoever that legal, humane and effective predator control of generalist predators is essential for the continued survival of curlew.

Even the conservation industry now admits it in private. The RSPB itself is about to engage in its own version of predator control on the sites for which it has received millions from the EU. Obviously they had no intention of being any more open about what they are planning than they are about what they achieve but an interesting document has recently come to hand, which sets out their requirements for who ever bids successfully for the predator control contract at their site at Upper Loch Erne in Ulster.

The four year contract is to control foxes and crows for 8 months each year over 2,400 hectares, with a stated maximum total cost of £92,320 and a maximum hourly rate of £26.20p. This works out at about 17 hours a week during the 8 month killing season, between one and two days work for a typical gamekeeper. But obviously a lot of what a proper gamekeeper would do is not in the Job Description.

The main tasks are:

- To reduce by shooting the population of foxes on the site that could impact on curlew on nests and young.

- To remove out of view of the public and appropriately dispose of fox carcases.

- To monitor hooded/carrion/hybrid crow nests along the periphery of the site and to destroy them.

- To provide and run Larsen Traps away from the public view, to remove territorial crows that have learned behaviours to target curlew eggs and chicks.

- To shoot crows if a specific bird is known to be harassing birds or predating nests and the use of the Larsen Trap has been found to be ineffective.

There is a lot of other stuff about using air rifles to shoot the trapped birds or alternatively knocking them on the head with a priest, RSPB standards, not letting anyone see the dead crows, non-lead ammunition and so on, and the whole thing ends with the last requirement, a single word, confidentiality.

It will be interesting to see who they get, and how they get on, but the document shows what the problems are.

The references to both foxes and crows are designed to create a position where the RSPB are not just killing any foxes and any crows. They are instead expecting their contractor to identify only the individuals that pose a threat to the curlews.

The “foxes on site that could impact on the curlew”, only makes sense if you believe that there are foxes on site that will not impact on the curlew, and even more bizarrely, that you can tell the naughty ones from the nice ones. RSPB gives no guidance on how this can be done.

Their instructions on crows make this even more obvious, if a little weird, the only ones that can be killed are, “territorial”, with “learned behaviour to target curlew eggs and chicks” or “specific birds known to target birds or nests”.

Again there is no indication how the unfortunate contractor is supposed to tell, if a bird has, or has not, got a learned behaviour, when it is hopping about in a Larsen Trap, or, if it has just turned up from miles away, if it intends to specifically target curlew eggs or has just come to enjoy the view.

This all seems mad but it is not. It is cynical. They will be aware that, faced with this nonsense, any sane contractor will just ignore it, and shoot any fox they see and kill every crow they can get their hands on.

They will do this on the entirely rational basis that a fox has never been born, and a crow never hatched, that will pass up a curlew egg or chick. That, far from being learned behaviour, these generalist predator are all doing what they all do, following the instinctive drive to take advantage of any chance that comes their way. They will be safe enough if they do.

The people who wrote this nonsense, know perfectly well that the Senior Conservation Manager, whose job it is to manage this process, will not be able to tell a naughty crow from a nice one, or say that the fox, being spirited away secretly for appropriate disposal, meant no harm to curlew chicks, and was merely passing by.

But what this nonsense does is create a template that can be forced on others. Predator control is a vital tool in the conservation of many species. Brown and mountain hares, and almost all ground nesting birds, including curlew, need to be protected from a range of generalist predators.

Everybody sensible knows that. But that doesn't stop people, who need to raise millions from a public, many of whom have no intention of facing reality, pretending that that there are good crows and bad crows, and that the RSPB is able to employ people at £26 an hour who can tell the difference.

If this nonsense is not challenged do not be surprised when NE and institutional landowners require gamekeepers and farmers to work to the same crazy rules.

You might think that the RSPB is going to end the pain of unkind comparisons, between their fumblings, and the excellent curlew populations on grouse moors, by dragging everyone down to their level. We could not possibly comment.


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