Immediate conservation action is vital if the evocative bubbling song of the Curlew is not to be lost from Shropshire forever. There is a real danger that breeding Curlews will become extinct here in the next few years.
Atlas work in 2008-13 did not find Curlews in 62% of the tetrads where they were found in 1985-90, a massive contraction of range. Over the same period, the population has declined by an estimated 77% in only 20 years, from around 700 pairs in 1990 to around 160 pairs in 2010.
Monitoring carried out by Community Wildlife Groups shows that numbers are still going down. Nest monitoring by the Stiperstones-Corndon Landscape Partnership Scheme in the County hotspot, with a quarter of the breeding pairs, found disastrous breeding seasons in 2015 and 2016, when apparently no young fledged. The decline continued in 2017.
Nationally, Curlew was added to the Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern in December 2015 because of a decline of 62% since the 1960s. Internationally, the UK has a special responsibility for Curlew, as we have an estimated 28% of the European breeding population, with more in winter, and an estimated 19-27% of the world population.
The County hosts a significant proportion of the remaining population in southern England, and it is one of the few species on the provisional Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern for Shropshire where the SOS can take immediate, direct action.
Curlew is the highest bird conservation priority in the country
The ‘Save Our Curlews’ Campaign & Appeal
In 2018 and 2019, Shropshire Wildlife Trust (SWT) and SOS established a long-term County-wide ‘Save Our Curlews’ campaign, funded by a joint appeal. SWT withdrew in 2019. The Campaign and Appeal are being continued and co-ordinated by SOS.
For details of the Campaign from 2020 onwards, and how to donate to the Appeal, click here. SOS will support the campaign from its own funds, support grant applications to other bodies, and encourage SOS and Community Wildlife Group members, and the general public, to donate.
If, like us, you think that Shropshire will be a much poorer place without Curlews, please support the appeal.
The Campaign is a long-term project, and will:
- support population monitoring by Community Wildlife Groups,
- continue nest protection and chick monitoring, to establish the reasons for low chick survival rates, and address the key issue of increasing chick fledging rates,
- find out if nest and chick survival rates are equally poor across the whole County, and if not, establish the reasons for the variation,
- extend the project to new CWG areas (including a new area, the Strettons, in 2020, with funding from the National Trust’s Stepping Stones Project, thanks to support from the People’s Postcode Lottery),
- work closely with farmers and
- feed results into South of England Curlew Forum and national Curlew Species Recovery Group, to help establish the need for effective Government action
Information about the discontinued SWT / SOS joint appeal has now been archived, and is available here.
Campaign Work in 2018 and 2019
The Campaign and Appeal will build on project work carried out in 2018 and 2019 with the Upper Clun and Clee Hill Community Wildlife Groups
The full reports (.pdf format) of project work in 2018 in these areas can be found by following these links:
A summary of the project work, and the monitoring by the CWGs, in 2018, can be found here, in MS Word format (.docx).
The 10 CWGs covered 137 of Shropshire’s 870 tetrads, and over 270 people contributed over 2,200 hours to the surveys, a clear indication of the commitment of local people to saving our Curlews. Between them, the Groups found 80-100 territories. A summary can be found here.
These projects continued in 2019, but less time was spent on nest-finding, protection and monitoring because the SWT / SOS appeal was less successful.
It was a strange year, as Curlews arrived back on their breeding grounds, and settled down, later than usual.
In the Upper Clun, 6-10 pairs were found, the lowest since monitoring started in 2007, but some pairs did not appear to settle down at all, although they might have done but been predated quickly. One nest was found, the territory with the pair that hatched deformed chicks last year, but permission could not be obtained to fence it (there was no current owner – the owner was deceased, and the legacy was in probate), and the nest was predated. Therefore, no fencing of nests or ringing or radio-tagging of chicks was been done in that area. Two nests, possibly three, produced chicks, but it is believed that none survived.
In Clee Hill, the Community Wildlife Group found 7 – 8 pairs in the area that has been monitored since 2012, and another one just to the north. Four nests were found and fenced. One clutch of 4 eggs went full term, but didn’t hatch, and another clutch was destroyed after sheep with thick coats (which protected them from the fence) were released in the field and trampled part of the fence down.
Two clutches hatched. Radio tags were fitted to six chicks, and they were tracked.
The first pair, on SWT land at Catherton Common, are presumably the pair that used the tree nursery in previous years, as they took the chicks near to it after hatching. Three of the 4 chicks were tagged. Two were predated. The third lost its tag, which was found, but it appears this too was predated.
The second pair (at the same site where definitely one, probably two, young fledged last year) had three eggs that all hatched, and all the chicks were tagged and tracked. All three young were colour-ringed and fledged, an excellent result.
Another nest, in a cereal crop which made it unfindable, definitely produced chicks, but they were not re-sighted. No evidence was found that any other nests produced chicks.
The main aim of the Clun and Clee projects in 2019 was to gain more information about how the chicks behave and forage, and the threats they face, and we have achieved this on Clee Hill.
One of the six chicks headstarted and released by Curlew Country in 2017 returned to the area this year, and nested. That project had support from WWT for headstarting in 2019, and has posted a blog about the successful release of 33 headstarted chicks in south Shropshire (see http://curlewcountry.org/2019/08/02/the-big-release/)
Ten Community Wildlife Groups monitored their local Curlew populations in 2019. Clee Hill took on an additional 4 tetrads to the west, and Abdon took on an additional 7 tetrads to the west and south, to close the gap between the two areas, and cover additional squares with known Curlews. Collectively, the 10 Groups surveyed 267 tetrads (1048 square kilometres), and 320 members put in over 2,350 hours and identified 94 – 115 Curlew territories.
This excellent effort demonstrates the commitment of local people to saving the Curlew from local extinction.
Curlews in Shropshire, and the Save our Curlews campaign
The status of Curlews in Shropshire, a summary of the monitoring carried out by the CWGs since the first one started in 2004, and other aspects of the campaign, can be found here.
In 2018, Curlew Country concentrated on headstarting”, by removing eggs from nests, incubating them, rearing the hatched chicks in captivity, and releasing the fledged young into the wild, under license obtained from Natural England. Twenty-one were released. In 2019, 33 were released, and one of six headstarted fledged young in 2017 returned to the area to breed.
It is not known how many of these young will survive and return to their natal area from 2020 onwards, or whether the absence of contact with parents will have any effect on their behaviour and life skills, so the results need to be carefully monitored. However, experience in previous years found that few if any of these eggs would have hatched and produced fledged young if left in the nests, so the experiment is easily justified.
Geoff Hilton, Chief Scientist and Head of Research at the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust, who has overseen WWTs work on headstarting several species, has said Headstarting Curlews is a sticking plaster on a big problem. It is essential to have a Curlew Recovery Plan in place too. Is a head-started Curlew as good at being a wild bird as a wild-raised Curlew? It should continue to be seen as an experimental technique.
For more information, see the Curlew Country website www.curlewcountry.org.
Over 170 Curlews have been caught and colour-ringed by Tony Cross since 2015, mainly in spring at Dolydd Hafren MWT reserve near Welshpool, when they are returning to their breeding areas. The 4, probably 5 fledged young from the Clee Hill project were also colour-ringed, as were all the headstarted Curlews released by Curlew Country
If you see a Curlew, please check it for colour-rings. More details can be found here. You can also report any observations to Leo Smith.
Other initiatives raising the profile of Curlew
The profile of Curlews, and the need for concerted and co-ordinated action to halt and reverse the decline, has received considerable support recently
- An article in British Birds in November 2015, pointing out that the UK had about 28% of the European population, and 18-27% of the world population, and arguing that Curlew conservation is the highest Bird conservation priority in the UK
- Curlew was added to the national Red List of Birds of Conservation 4 in December 2015.
- Mary Colwell’s high profile 500 mile walk, resulting in the publication of her book “Curlew Moon”
- The South of England Curlew Forum was established in 2017 to promote Curlew conservation in southern England. Membership includes representatives of Curlew projects in 12 Counties from Shropshire southwards, RSPB, BTO, WWT and NE, and in Ireland and France. It continues to collate and publish data (population, population trends and poor breeding success) and encourage new projects in areas with a Curlew population. It makes the case for urgent action to safeguard these remaining populations. Shropshire is an important part of this given that it has c25% of the known population in southern England. See curlewcall.org.
- Formation of Action Groups similar to the South of England Forum in Ireland, Scotland and Wales
- Setting up a national Curlew Species Recovery Group, comprising RSPB (who provide the chair / secretariat), BTO, GWCT, WWT, JNCC, National Trust, Birdwatch Ireland, National Parks Ireland and the four country-based statutory agencies. The purpose of the group is to bring together five statutory agencies and various non-governmental organisations to shape and drive a co-ordinated programme for curlew conservation
- A “Curlew Summit” was held at 10 Downing Street in July 2019 (report published in BB September 2019 here.)
How You Can Help
SOS members, and anyone else interested in saving Curlews, would be very welcome in any CWG, and be a big asset. Basically, you take on a survey square (a ‘tetrad’, a 2×2 kilometre square on the OS national grid – the same survey unit as the Bird Atlas), and walk round it three times on dates to suit you, around 1 April, 1 May and 15 June, for around 3 hours each visit.
The areas covered by the various CWGs, overlain on the Curlew distribution map from the 2008-13 County Bird Atlas, can be found here. Help with the organisation and recruiting of new members would be especially welcome. For further information about each of the Community Wildlife Groups, see their website.
Finding and protecting nests, tagging and following chicks, and extending this work to new areas, costs money, and needs to continue for many years, so please support the Appeal as often as you can.
If anyone wants to help with Curlew monitoring work by the various Community Wildlife Groups, or locating nest sites, or has any ideas about who we can approach for funding or how we can raise more money for Curlew conservation, please contact Leo Smith (contact details below).
Update since February 2020
The SOS Appeal, grants promised by other bodies, and a substantial contribution from SOS’s own funds raised most of what was needed to fund project work in three Community Wildlife Group (CWG) areas in 2020. This would have involved finding and protecting nests, followed by radio-tagging and tracking chicks to find out what happens to them. However, the planned work and fundraising for the shortfall was postponed until next year because of the coronavirus lockdown. All the money raised, including grants approved by other bodies (£5,000 from People’s Postcode Lottery through the National Trust’s Stepping Stones Project to fund project work in the Strettons area, £2,000 from the Shropshire Hills AONB Conservation Fund and £1,000 from the Garreg Llwyd Hill Wind Farm Community Benefit Fund for work in the Bettws-y-Crwyn part of the Upper Clun area), has been carried forward, and fundraising will restart in the autumn, so the complete project can be started in 2021.
The CWG Bird Surveys were also cancelled until coronavirus restrictions were eased in mid-May, but the planned population monitoring of the vast majority of the County’s estimated population of 120 breeding pairs by 10 different CWGs continued within lockdown restrictions. Some people were able to conduct their surveys in sections as part of their daily exercise, others exercised in different areas closer to home, some were able to record pairs from their home, and others set up networks of friends and neighbours to report Curlews. Overall, coverage has not been as good as usual, but some records were received from every area, and in a few cases it was as good, or even better, than last year. The results have not yet been analysed, but it is clear that Curlews have had another disastrous breeding season.
On 1 June a post-breeding flock of about 20 Curlews was seen near The Stiperstones, and on 22 June nine were seen near Church Stretton. These numbers represent about one-third, and over half, of the breeding population in the respective areas, but little grass-cutting or other agricultural activities had occurred by those dates. This suggests a continuing very high nest failure rate due to predation.
Although CWG surveys do not look for nests, six were found incidentally. Four are known to have been predated. Two nests were fenced, and chicks hatched, but there is no evidence that any fledged. In addition, the nest fields of several other pairs were located, but the breeding attempts all ended before the date when incubation would have been complete. No agricultural activities had taken place in those fields either.
A few other pairs are known to have hatched chicks, and they too have been monitored. It is unlikely that any chicks would have fledged before mid-July, but there have been very few records since the end of June, as Curlews had already left their breeding areas.
The pair on Clee Hill, whose nest was found and fenced for two successive years, and which fledged 1-2 young in 2018 and all 3 chicks in 2019, failed without producing any chicks in 2020, when lockdown restrictions made nest finding and protection impossible.
Returns from CWG areas have not been fully analysed yet, but evidence so far suggests that only one pair, just south of Oswestry, has produced any fledged young.
An interim summary has been sent to the South of England Curlew Forum for inclusion in its July newsletter.
After analysis of all monitoring returns and reports, a full summary of 2020 will appear on the website. However, the interim conclusion, another very poor breeding season, is already clear.
Contribute to the SOS Save our Curlews Appeal
The interim results of Curlew monitoring in 2020 highlight yet again the need to implement a wide-ranging Save our Curlews campaign. We still need to raise a substantial amount to complete all the planned project work in 2021. Further funding applications will be made between now and spring 2021, as the opportunities present themselves. If anyone knows of any funding opportunities, or grant-making bodies we can approach, please let us know.
The Appeal leaflet, sent out with the February issue of The Buzzard, can be found here. It has so far raised over £3,000 from about 30 SOS members. Gift Aid of about £700 can be claimed on these donations. This is an excellent result, and all donors are thanked profusely for their generosity. Donors should note that we do not intend to send receipts as a matter of course, but we can provide confirmation of donations by email upon request.
The main fund-raising drive will take place in the autumn, but readers are encouraged to make their donations as soon as possible.
Saving England’s Lowland Eurasian Curlews
An article on behalf of the South of England Curlew Forum (Colwell et al, BB May 2020) describes the population of about 500 pairs in the areas monitored by Forum members, and the related conservation efforts. Shropshire’s estimated 130 pairs (in 2018) is more than one-quarter of the south of England total. The article can be found here.
It also refers to a new national charity, Curlew Action (www.curlewaction.org) to promote best practice and support the work of the Forum and Curlew conservation nationally and internationally. In recognition of the urgency and critical nature of Curlew Action’s objectives, SOS has made a donation of £2500 to the charity, as the SOS-sponsored ‘Save Our Curlews’ campaign will benefit from the work of Curlew Action through its advocacy, educational activities and practical conservation tools. However, readers re encouraged to give priority to the local appeal.
While agricultural intensification (the switch from hay to silage, resulting in grass being cut several times in the breeding season), land drainage and other grassland management has undoubtedly driven the decline over many years, the evidence now suggests that predation levels are such that habitat restoration will not be sufficient to reverse the decline. So why are predation levels so high?
Colwell et al refer to the “potential relationship between high numbers of generalist predators and the release of around 50 million pheasants and partridges into the countryside every year”
The Editorial in the 2019 Shropshire Bird Report referred to a paper by BTO scientists on “Associations Between Gamebird Release and Generalist Predators” (Pringle et al, 2019), and stated “the sheer biomass of over 40 million Pheasants released for shooting each year is significantly more than double the biomass of all wild bird species breeding throughout the UK. With only a small percentage of these birds being shot and retrieved [estimated at 35%], most of the rest are then available to the medium and large avian and mammalian predators . . . hence potentially causing a real imbalance in the ecosystem.” The paper, “using [BTO} data from the last Bird Atlas and the annual Breeding Bird Survey, showed that large scale variation in avian predator populations (Raven, Buzzard, Magpie, Carrion Crow) is positively associated with gamebird releases so predator numbers are increased by gamebird releases.”
Henrietta Pringle produced a graph for BTO news and a blog based on the analyses done using BBS data. As a guide, “if we start with a hypothetical population of five crows in a 1-km square, the model predicts that the following year, with no pheasants, there would be 5.08 crows in the square. If there were 10 Pheasants in the square, there would instead be 5.13 crows in year 2 and if there were 100 Pheasants, there would be 5.62 crows. Similar patterns were also found for Buzzard (with Red-legged Partridge), Jay (with Red-legged Partridge) and Raven (with Pheasant, Red-legged Partridge and total biomass of gamebirds). These figures should be viewed cautiously, but they give some sort of idea of how predator populations could be boosted by gamebird releases, particularly if you extrapolate to larger areas and over many years”
As yet there is no similar research on gamebird releases sustaining fox populations, but the GWCT website refers to the number of foxes “controlled” and reported through the national gamebag census, and states “There has been a continuous increase in the bag index since 1961, leading to it being more than three times higher in 2009 than in 1961.” Pheasant release increased 10-fold over the same period. With considerable understatement, the website article concludes “The widespread rearing and releasing of gamebirds has probably improved fox food supply in autumn and winter.”
A paper by RSPB research scientists, “A review of predation as a limiting factor for bird populations in mesopredator-rich landscapes: a case study of the UK” found “that predation, mainly by foxes and non-native mammals, can limit the numbers of ground-nesting species, such as waders, gamebirds, and seabirds” (Roos et al, 2018).
This, together with preliminary results of the RSPB’s Curlew Trial Management project, which was set up in 2015 to test whether a combination of predator control and habitat management can be delivered as a conservation tool to improve breeding success and breeding abundance of curlew, and other factors, led to the RSPB starting a review of its policy on “the most intensive forms of gamebird shooting, especially driven grouse moor management (which involves shooting our native red grouse) and large-scale release of non-native game birds, primarily pheasants and red-legged partridges, now in excess of 57 million birds annually”. So far, the RSPB membership and partner organisations have been consulted on a set of conservation principles, and the staff team are currently finalising the scientific reviews of the evidence of impacts from the two most intensive forms of shooting (driven grouse and high density gamebird releases), to assess these shooting styles against the conservation principles. The final phase will involve reviewing the RSPB’s existing policy on driven grouse shooting and developing a new position on gamebird releases. It is planned to announce the results of this review at the AGM in October.
Curlew Predation and Pheasant Release in Shropshire
In Shropshire, the Curlew Country project found 33 nests in the two years 2015 and 2016. Only three nests in each of the two years hatched any chicks. The other 27 nests all failed, with more than half being predated by foxes, just under 25% by badgers, with Carrion Crows and agricultural operations accounting for the rest. None of the chicks fledged, and monitoring by the CWGs found no evidence that young fledged from any other nest in either of the two years.
Save our Curlews campaign work in Upper Clun and Upper Onny in 2018 and 2019 found 11 nests, 10 were fenced, and eight produced chicks (of the other two, in one case the fence was knocked over by sheep, and in the other the eggs didn’t hatch). Eighteen chicks were radio tagged and followed, and 4-5 from two broods (both from the same territory, in successive years) fledged, but the other 13 were all predated (at least 3, probably 8, by foxes, 3 by avian predators (at least one a Buzzard), and two by unknown predators). None were lost to agricultural activities. Again, monitoring by the CWGs found no evidence that young fledged from any other nest in either of the two years. The fledging rate in each of these areas is therefore not sufficient to sustain the population, and predation is the major problem.
The 2008-13 Atlas showed breeding evidence for Pheasants in 854 of the County’s 870 tetrads, with it absent in both the breeding and winter seasons only in urban Telford. The range (tetrad occupancy) had increased since 1985-90, and BBS showed a 69% increase in the local breeding population between 1997 and 2014. The feral population was estimated at 43,400-45,000 breeding pairs.
In 2018, figures obtained from the Animal and Plant Health Authority (APHA), a Government Agency, showed that 726,000 pheasants were released in Shropshire in that year alone (Shrubshole 2018). The following links provide more details on Pheasant releases.
Going back to the figures for the increase in the crow population in Henrietta Pringle’s paper (an increase of 10% in a 1km square if 100 Pheasants are released), the average number of Pheasants released in every 1km square in Shropshire is more than twice that number, over 200 every year.
Unfortunately, the only geographical breakdown of the County total was to main postcode area, so it is not possible to do a detailed correlation of where the Pheasants are released with where the few remaining Curlews are breeding unsuccessfully, but as there are over 300 times more Pheasant nests than Curlew nests, plus the remainder of the released Pheasants, for foxes to predate, it is almost certain that the loss of Curlews is just collateral damage. Hopefully the RSPB’s review of shooting policy will prove the causal link, and provide a sound framework for regulation of Pheasant shoots, particularly limitations on the numbers that are released but not shot and picked up.
SOS Save our Curlews Campaign Co-ordinator
Thanks to BB for making Saving England’s lowland Eurasian Curlews (Colwell et al) available now. There is usually an embargo of two years before articles are free online, but this one has been released now given the potential conservation benefits of doing so.
Members who are not familiar with BB can see a sample copy on their website, at https://britishbirds.co.uk/content/bb-sample-issue/. There is currently an introductory offer, https://britishbirds.co.uk/product/intro-offer/
The SOS Co-ordinator for the “Save Our Curlews” campaign is Leo Smith 01694 720296 (email@example.com).