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'The Guardian: A cloud of curlews carries me away'...thanks to upland keepers.

Credit: Emily Graham media.

Today's Guardian carried a Country Diary from Elizabeth-Jane Burnett on the joy of curlews.

The article refers to the extent of their decline, but fails to provide any explanation as to why that decline has come about or indeed what needs to be done to protect these magical birds for future generations.

"Northam Burrows, Devon: Lifting and soaring together, this comparatively small group feels like an abundance, such is their decline

‘Curlews are facing such large declines … that this gathering, though comparatively small, feels like an abundance.’

Three curlews flush up from the path in front of me. I catch a flash of white, mottled brown, curved bills, but keep on walking. They often wait for the tide to retreat on this patch of coastal grassland close to the mudflats they like to feed on. The mud is submerged now, water stretched over like a second skin.

Another group rises from the ground behind the brambles: four, five, six. Then another, and another, until there are 20 in the air. I keep walking. Like the curlews, I am watching the tide. I am not waiting for its retreat but rather to catch it at its tipping point, when the water becomes safe enough to swim in but still rough enough that I can catch the force of the waves and feel, for a moment, swept up. ‘The long creak of the curlew’s cry is like a bow being drawn over a string.’

A whoosh of wing stops me as another group takes flight. At first, it seems like clouds of curlews lifting and soaring together, but then the starlings start to differentiate themselves – smaller, darker bodies among white bellies and long bills. Starlings glitter through the curlews’ light feathers. Curlews glide through the starlings’ tremors.

Next, it is the sound that separates them. The long creak of the curlew’s cry is like a bow being drawn over a string – a cello, perhaps, out here on the rough grassland – cutting through the starlings’ chatter, until it feels like the bow no longer moves over strings but starlings, as the sound turns to a prolonged trembling that matches their sway. I stand still inside the music. I forget the tide. I forget the waves. I do not need water to be carried away.

Curlews are facing such large declines in breeding populations and ranges in the UK that this gathering, though comparatively small, feels like an abundance. As I stand, enveloped by the throng, I ask: what did I do to deserve the curlews? It is a question that hangs in the air for a moment, caught among the pulsing bodies before one final surge carries it away.

Some curlew facts:

  • As well as habitat pressures, predation poses the most serious threat to curlew breeding success.

  • Predation pressure has significantly risen in recent decades as fox, crow and seagull populations have increased.

  • One study showed that predation has increased from 16% to 65% of curlew nests predated per year across Europe, when looking at the periods pre-1980 compared to 1996-2006. In Northern Ireland, a study on nesting success found that up to 97% of nest failures and 74% of chick mortality were due to predation, mainly from foxes and predatory birds.

  • A GWCT study looked at the effect of performing predator control on moorland for breeding waders, including curlew. When predators were controlled, curlew bred three times more successfully than on the same moorland when predator control was withdrawn. Effective predator control is the number one reason why curlew breed better on moorland managed for red grouse.

Everyone who enjoys these magical birds should recognise the crucial role upland keepers play in ensuring their long term survival.


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