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New project hopes to boost South Downs curlew with help of eggs from the Yorkshire Dales


The Eurasian curlew is one of the country’s most iconic waders; Europe’s largest wading bird, and instantly recognisable from its long, downward curling bill. But the curlew has been struggling. Added to the red list for conservation in the UK in 2021, they have seen big declines in their breeding populations through much of the UK, but particularly in the south.


Breeding Eurasian curlew numbers in the UK are estimated to have fallen by 65% since 1970, and it is estimated by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) that worldwide there has been a 20-30% reduction in curlew breeding numbers in the past 15 years.


But in the uplands and areas of the UK managed as grouse moors, curlew are doing relatively well. Nidderdale Moorland Group highlighted the other day how keepers in their region have been helping the ground-nesting curlew by nest marking before mowing and mowing from the middle of a field and carrying out effective and targeted predator control in an attempt to give these chicks the best possible chance to fledge.


Curlew chicks in Nidderdale in 2021


This week, the GWCT have reported on a new project which hopes to bring some of the successes that curlew are seeing in the uplands, and apply that to the south of England.


Initiated by the Norfolk Estate, Sussex, the project hopes to establish a breeding curlew population on the South Downs. The project involves a technique called headstarting, whereby eggs are taken from the wild, under licence, incubated artificially, and then chicks are reared to fledging age before release into the wild. The technique has been used previously to reinforce curlew numbers in Shropshire, the Severn and Avon Vales, Dartmoor and Norfolk.


The eggs being used to establish the curlew population are being taken from the Arkengarthdale and Castle Bolton areas, in the Yorkshire Dales.

Although headstarting has been used before by Curlew Country, WWT, Pensthorpe Conservation Trust, BTO and Natural England, the South Downs project is being used to determine whether this might be an effective technique for reintroducing curlew to southern England more widely. The GWCT will be obtaining data on the survival rate, winter dispersal and site selection at breeding age of headstarted curlews through radio-tracking and GPS tracking of released birds.


Releases of curlew are planned for five years subject to annual reviews, and monitoring for at least ten years.