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How can we help curlew to thrive?

Over the next couple of weeks, curlew will be returning to the UK’s uplands and moorlands, where they breed before spending spring and summer on the moors. The birds are a traditional moorland bird, preferring to nest in low vegetation on open moorland near to wetlands where they can feed, and their distinctive call is often heard across the moors.

However, the sad reality is that our curlew numbers are falling. Currently listed as “near threatened”, numbers were down 30% in England between 1995 – 2017. In Scotland, the decline is even worse, at 61%.

A very interesting blog was posted recently by a man named Graham Appleton, the former head of communications at the British Trust for Ornithology. The blog concerns curlews and foxes in, specifically, East Anglia. His blog was, incidentally, shared on Twitter by Chris Packham, which got many of the BBC presenter’s fans all abuzz. Why? Well, because as Packham put it in his tweet: “New study of Breckland Curlew suggests ways to help these red-listed waders, by attracting them into habitats from which foxes & sheep can be excluded.”

Appleton’s proposal is that in order to thrive – or, indeed, for curlew numbers to increase – they need protection from predators in some way, shape or form. He doesn’t say that the only way is by removing predators; in fact he actually suggests removing the birds from the predators by, for example, encouraging the birds to nest in specific plots which are then protected by electric fencing.

He also notes that curlew tend to nest in low vegetation – something that will not be news to those who have seen curlew nesting on moorland which has been properly managed. So much for the oft-heard claim that moorland management benefits only one species: the red grouse.

Appleton also notes that of the areas surveyed, the one in which curlew thrived best was where the site “was both fenced and subject to lethal fox control”. Packham’s supporters fear that this piece will encourage people to control fox numbers; something which many of them are against. But herein lies the problem. For curlew to survive, or thrive, human intervention is imperative. Is it feasible to fence every curlew nest from predators? Of course not; and as the blog notes, a number of curlew were susceptible to predation from crows as well as foxes – predation that fencing couldn’t prevent.

Farmers, keepers, landowners; they all understand that predator control is needed if we don’t want our countryside to become a monoculture. And it would appear that even Chris Packham understands that ground nesting birds need protecting from predation. Let’s just hope that other people: Natural England and indeed groups such as Wild Justice who want to put an end to general licenses, learn something from this research.


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