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How the curlew became 'the cash cow' for the conservation industry

There is something about curlew that seems to bring out the worst in some people. As the number one conservation priority amongst our nation's birds, it was always likely to create huge funding opportunities.

The conservation industry can smell money further than an emperor moth can scent pheromones and so they are drawn into a funding frenzy, circling their trapped funders, with the now familiar refrain, 'Give us the money, or the curlew gets it'.

There is no doubt that in many places the curlew desperately needs help. It is already gone from hundreds of breeding sites that were occupied a couple of decades ago and it only hangs on in others because adult curlew can live a long time and so they may try and breed year after year but fail to raise chicks to fledging. Thus, many occupied territories are simply ghost sites, treading water until the pair die, old and chick less.

Obviously, there has been much research done as to the causes of the problem. One of the things that the conservation industry is good at is researching the impending extinction of rare birds. They will happily spend millions of pounds of public money describing the problem in ever more minute detail, whilst avoiding the awful business of actually doing what has to be done to save it.

This is especially, or rather invariably, the case if the problem is predation, and in the case of the curlew, it is obvious that in many, perhaps most places, they are failing because of the predation of their eggs and chicks by generalist predators.

There are some of these generalists that can be controlled straightforwardly, such as foxes, stoats, weasels, and some corvids. There are others you might get a licence to cull like large gulls, and many that you have no hope of dealing with under any circumstances, badgers, common buzzards and other raptors, ravens, pine martins, otters and so on, and on.

For the avoidance of doubt the impact of legal predator control by a gamekeeper on the success of breeding curlew was demonstrated very clearly by the Otterburn Study, published in 2010, 14 years ago.

This showed that when a gamekeeper was controlling corvids, foxes and stoats, curlew fledged more chicks than were needed to maintain the population, and that the numbers of breeding pairs increased, whereas without the keeper's predator control, the birds could not produce sufficient fledged chicks to maintain their population and numbers of breeding pairs declined.

The findings did not please the conservation industry one bit, and since then, they have not instituted efficient and effective predator control anywhere. Instead of doing what is manifestly needed to save the curlew, they have thrashed around looking for a way out.

It is true that they have done what they refer to as predator control. It is also true that nowhere has this achieved a turn around in the fortunes of the curlew. At Lake Vyrnwy for example the RSPB have been employing contractors to shoot foxes at night but this has not stopped curlew going from abundant to functionally extinct on their watch. Sadly the same has happened to other species such as the black grouse and even peregrines.

This catastrophe is not evidence that predator control doesn't work, or that predator control is not necessary, or that predator control is a distraction. It is evidence that RSPB can't do predator control. A few miles north of the car crash that is Lake Vyrnwy is a grouse moor funded by the subscriptions of a few keen individuals, where a good gamekeeper works within the law. Here curlew are doing well, as are many other species, including the black grouse. Where the RSPB counted one or two blackcock, the keepered moor held over 150.

So the evidence suggests that whilst humane and legal predator control is essential for curlew conservation, RSPB are not able to provide the level of competence or commitment that is needed to achieve success.

The next step down the road of avoiding reality was provided by Natural England, who gave money to the RSPB to carry out a five year trial to compare the difference in impact of habitat management versus predator control on curlew nesting success.

This was an amazing decision on the part of NE. Why on earth did they give the money to RSPB to do this comparison. With their record of hopelessly ineffective predator control, why pick them? It's like buying a donkey off Blackpool beach in the hope that it might win the Derby. Why not GWCT who have a track record of efficient legal predator control? Why not approach the National Gamekeepers Organisation for advice, and help? We will never know? But we could predict the outcome.

Yes that's right, when it ended in 2020, it showed that predator control didn't work, but then neither did the donkey make it to the Derby. The habitat management didn't work either. Amazingly, the English control sites where the RSPB did nothing did better than the sites where they did anything. From the point of view of breeding success, curlew would be better off avoiding any offer of help from the RSPB.

Incredibly this farce has now resulted in a peer reviewed paper Douglas et al. This in itself calls into question the peer review process. If we just look at the English sites, the whole thing was a shambles.

The RSPB itself reported to NE that not everywhere started at the same time, that they were surprised how difficult predator control in the uplands was, that they were equally amazed to discover it got wet when it rained, that in the Peak District hunt saboteurs repeatedly disrupted predator control, and to cap it all, their own celebrity Vice-President Chris Packham's attack on the General Licences meant that they had to abandon crow control at the most critical time of the year.

To make matters worse the sites subject to different treatment and therefore supposedly separated by a considerable distance were sometimes within an easy fox trot. The pest control contractors were not only attacked by sabs and Chris Packham, they were also only allowed to operate for a few months of the year and were forbidden, by the RSPB Ethics Committee, most legal methods of control, and from controlling common predators of ground nesting birds, such as stoats.

This utter shambles apparently means that predator control does not work and that the idea, that government conservation grants might include funding for predator control, would not work either. Of course, it does nothing of the sort. It simply shows that as far as predator control is concerned, the RSPB is incompetent. Their position is akin to saying that car mechanics are of no use because the six year old with a hammer failed to mend your car.

They do try to explain why gamekeepers are able to produce the amazing number of curlew that they do. Apparently this is because they control more species and use legal methods which the Ethics Committee would not like. They also speculate that there are less pheasants and partridges and less trees around grouse moors than around the places they worked on. Finally they think that gamekeepers are more incentivised than the people they employed and cost far to much.

This last claim is interesting as it seems at odds with common sense. Paying for something that works is a far better idea than paying less for something that doesn't. But pay they certainly did. The predator control alone cost £465,729 and averaged out at £21.61/ha, whilst the habitat management averaged £135/ha. Thank goodness it was part funded by the tax payer.

These are simply speculative excuses to explain why they couldn't do what gamekeepers can do. There is no empirical evidence that I can find for any of it. It is just excuses for incompetence and any peer reviewer should surely of asked them to demonstrate what they claim before it got the stamp of approval.

But the strangest thing of all is that they were measuring the two easiest things. They measured the numbers of pairs and the nests that hatched. They did not produce figures for the only thing that really matters, the number of curlew chicks that fledge. We know that you can have lots of chicks hatched and lose the lot before they can fly.

It happens all the time and RSPB and NE know it does. So in the end, even if it had not been a farce, even if they didn't feel that their contractors lacked the commitment of gamekeepers, even if more nests had hatched, it would have all been a waste of five years, because they were only measuring the easy bit and not the bit that matters.


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