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 (CWGs) shows that numbers are still going down, and very few young fledge here. At the current rate of decline, the County population will halve in about 12 years, and virtually disappear in 25. As few young Curlews fledge, the population is likely to be ageing, so the decline may well occur more quickly.
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 Shropshire’s Red List of Breeding Birds of Conservation Concern where the SOS can take immediate, direct action.
Curlew is the highest bird conservation priority in the country
The ‘Save Our Curlews’ Campaign & 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 more CWG areas in due course, and
- feed results into South of England Curlew Forum, the UK and Ireland Curlew Action Group and the Curlew Recovery Partnership (see below), to help establish the need for effective Government action
The campaign costs money, and is financed by SOS from its own funds, an Appeal to SOS and Community Wildlife Group members, and the general public, and grant applications to other bodies. To see the 2023 appeal leaflet, and details of how to donate to the Appeal, click here.
If, like us, you think that Shropshire will be a much poorer place without Curlews, please support the appeal.
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.
Save our Curlews project work
This involves nest finding, protecting nests with electric fencing, and radio-tagging and tracking chicks to find out how they use the landscape, and what happens to them. Understanding the reasons for low levels of chick survival is the key to an effective conservation plan.
Project work started in 2018, and has operated in four of the last five years (the exception being 2020, due to covid-19 restrictions) in the Upper Clun and Clee Hill areas, and in two years (2021 and 2022) in the Strettons area.
i. Project Results 2022
Nine nests were found and fenced, three in each of three separate Community Wildlife Group areas.
Four fenced nests were predated. The fences are effective in keeping out mammalian predators, and there was no evidence that any of the fences were breached, so the eggs were probably taken by corvids. However, sitting Curlews have been seen to withstand attacks from Carrion Crows, so it is likely that the Curlews were absent from the nest when the eggs were taken . Absence may have been due to human disturbance, or both birds were away feeding at the same time, Curlews usually sit tight once incubation is underway, so it may have occurred after foxes near the fence had previously caused the Curlews to abandon the clutch, or leave it unattended, as apparently happened in 2021.
Five nests produced 18 chicks, which were all radio tagged. Three chicks died of natural causes (starvation, hypothermia or disease), in two cases within very thick silage where they would have had great difficulty moving through or finding food).
Potential avian predators of small chicks include Buzzard, Kite, Carrion Crow and Raven, and Curlews have been seen frequently driving away these species. Kestrel is also a possible predator, but no defensive action against Kestrel has been observed.
Only three out of 18 chicks (17%) survived beyond 8 days, with the longest surviving chick (19 days) still more than two weeks from fledging. The average lifespan of the 18 chicks was less than only 6.8 days, only a small fraction of the fledging period of about 35 days.
ii. Cumulative Project Results 2018 – 2022
During the entire period of the SOS project to date, 31 nests have been found and fenced, with eggs hatching in 20 (65%). Two more clutches (6%), both from the same pair in different years, never hatched although they were incubated for the full term, and another clutch (3%) partly hatched, but the chicks died almost immediately afterwards. This shows that fencing has a high success rate, protecting 74% of nests.
Five nests were predated (16%), all by corvids, four in 2022 referred to above and one in 2021; two were abandoned (10%), both in 2021 when foxes are known to have closely approached the fences; and one (3%) was predated when the fence was knocked over by unshorn sheep (3%).
However, fences protect the prospective Curlew for only four of the nine-week period between egg-laying and fledging. The main focus of this project has been to initially protect the nests and then radio-tag and track chicks, to see what happens to them and how they use the landscape.
Altogether 61 chicks have been tagged and tracked. Five, probably 6 (only 10%) fledged. Eight (13%) died of natural causes (starvation, hypothermia, disease), but two of these were unable to move through very thick silage, and two were probably separated from their parents by constant aerial harassment of the family party.
If the tag is found, with or without the remains of the chick, it is usually possible to make a judgement on the likely predator from field signs. In two cases, tags were found transmitting from a Buzzard nest, and one was under a Kite nest. Unidentified avian predators accounted for another seven.
If neither the tag nor any part of the chick is found, then it has almost certainly been taken underground by a fox. Last year a tag was found still transmitting, embedded in a fox scat right outside a fox den, 28 days after it was last detected when attached to a Curlew chick. Foxes appear to have accounted for 32 (52%) out of the 61 tagged chicks. It is not known why the proportion predated by foxes in 2021 was so high.
The 18 tagged chicks in 2022 survived for an average of only 6.78 days. Only three survived longer than eight days, and the oldest reached 19 days. Excluding the one tagged chick that fledged, the 20 tracked chicks in 2021 survived for an average of only 5.55 days. Only one survived longer than eight days, and reached 14 days. Over the two years, 38 chicks survived to an average of 6.13 days, compared to the 35 or so days they need to fledge. Specific figures are not available for 2018 or 2019, but the results were similar.
No chicks have died as a direct result of agricultural activities, but that is only because they had been predated first. Had they lived, about half the chicks would have still been unable to fly by the time the agri-environment schemes allowed grass-cutting of the fields they would have been in at that time (mid-July). There are no such restrictions on the majority of farms because they are not in agri-environment schemes and grass-cutting is likely to take place earlier than mid-July.
An effort has also been made to find and monitor chicks from an estimated 45 additional unfenced nests in the project areas. Very few chicks have hatched in unfenced nests and, other than the 2022 successes mentioned above, there is no evidence for any other fledged young in any of the four years.
Table 1 summarises the outcomes for the 31 nests found and fenced.
Table 2 summaries the fate of 61 radio-tagged chicks.
As an indication of the predation pressure on unfenced nests, in 2021 another four nests were found, but they were all predated in the period between finding and when the fencer arrived to fence them, usually the following day.
Funding Project Work
SOS has contributed to the project costs from its own funds, and an appeal to members, Community Wildlife Group members and the general public. Shropshire Wildlife Trust organised the appeal, including to its own members, in 2018-19.
SOS gratefully acknowledges grants from the Stepping Stones project, firstly via Strettons area Community Wildlife Group, with funding from the People’s Postcode Lottery in 2021, and secondly, with funding from the Green Recovery Challenge Fund, in 2022, the Shropshire Hill AONB Conservation Fund in all four years, British Birds Charitable Trust (2021 and 2022), and Wader Quest, the Garreg Llwyd Windfarm Community Benefit Fund and Stretton Focus Community Awards, all in 2021
This is a long-term project, which will continue in future years.
Community Wildlife Group Curlew Surveys
There are 10 Community Wildlife Groups altogether. The areas they cover , overlain on the Curlew distribution map from the 2008-13 County Bird Atlas, can be found here.
All 10 CWGs have carried out a Curlew survey this year, and all previous years since the campaign started, and some years before that.
The other Community Wildlife Groups not involved in SOS project work have been monitoring most of the remaining County Curlew population. Results for 2022 have not yet been analysed. In 2021, they found a further 66-79 pairs. Ten of these pairs are known to have had at least one chick, but no evidence was found that any fledged.
In 2020, Curlew monitoring was more effective than usual in most CWG areas, because people were working from, and exercising near, home. It is believed that only one of the 100 or so pairs monitored produced any fledged young. See the Curlew Survey Results 2020 here.
So, in five successive years, almost all pairs of Curlews in Shropshire had their nests or chicks predated.
Save our Curlews: Results of project and campaign work before 2021 (all years)
A full report covering the full period 2018-22 can be found here.
This report has been sent to the South of England Curlew Forum, the UK and Ireland Curlew Action Group and the Curlew Recovery Partnership (see below), so the work will be an integral part of the case to Government for effective Curlew conservation measures.
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. Curlew Country operations in 2020 were suspended, but in 2021 over 30 more young Curlews were released, and another 29 in 2022.
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 that 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 340 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. Three adults were caught and colour-ringed, two in Upper Clun and one in Strettons. Three previously ringed adults were seen, two in the Upper Clun and one in Strettons. The oldest was first seen in 2017, and ringed at Dolydd Hafren in the spring of that year.
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 (contact details below).
Other initiatives raising the profile of Curlew
The profile of Curlews, and the need for concerted and co-ordinated action to halt and reverse their decline, has received considerable support in recent years.
- 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, now known as the UK and Ireland Curlew Action 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.)
- In 2020, a new charity, Curlew Action, was set up by Mary Colwell. “Curlew Action” supports curlew recovery by advocating conservation efforts, developing and sharing resources for fieldworkers, and promoting wider natural history education (see www.curlewaction.org)
- In March 2021, the Curlew Recovery Partnership was launched, bringing together all those with an interest in Curlew conservation, including land managers, farmers, gamekeepers, policymakers and researchers. The partnership is the outcome of two Curlew Recovery Summits hosted by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales (now King Charles III). It will provide co-ordination and support to those engaged in Curlew conservation, while also providing benefits for other threatened species and habitats and helping people to connect with nature. The Steering Group comprises nine organisations: Bolton Castle Estate, British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), Curlew Action, Curlew Country, Duchy of Cornwall, Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), Natural England, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), and Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT).
How You Can Help
As previously stated, the areas covered by the various Community Wildlife Groups, 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.
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.
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).
Contribute to the SOS Save our Curlews Appeal
The results of Campaign and project work 2018-2022, outlined above, 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 from next year onwards. Further funding applications will be made, 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, being sent out with the November 2022 issue of The Buzzard, can be found here. It has so far raised over £13,000 mainly from SOS members but including over £3,500 in a ring-fenced appeal for the Strettons area. These totals include Gift Aid which can be claimed on them. 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.
Readers are encouraged to make their donations for future work as soon as possible. If donations exceed the amount we need for next year’s programme, they will be carried forward to fund similar work in future years.
Saving England’s Lowland Eurasian Curlews
An article on behalf of the South of England Curlew Forum (Colwell et al, British Birds, 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 the 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 are 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”
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”. The results of this review were announced at the AGM in October 2020. For large scale rear and release of gamebirds the RSPB is now seeking improved environmental standards, a reduction in the number of gamebirds released and better compliance with existing rules about reporting releases. The RSPB is committed to work with the shooting industry over the 18 months from the date of the AGM to bring about this change. If substantial reform is not forthcoming in this period, then the RSPB will press for tighter regulation of large-scale gamebird releases (see www.rspb.org.uk/gamebirdreview).
Having now completed this process, RSPB has seen little progress and “a lack of evidence for a reduction in negative impacts from gamebird releases . . . Given this lack of progress towards a more sustainable gamebird shooting industry over decades and minimal signs of positive change for the future, we have concluded that further regulation and better enforcement of existing rules will be required to deliver the changes necessary in the face of a nature and climate crisis.”
The most comprehensive review yet of “the animal welfare, public health, and environmental, ecological and conservation implications of rearing, releasing and shooting non-native gamebirds in Britain” by Professor Stephen Harris BSc PhD DSc, a retired academic from Bristol University, was published in May 2021 (see here).
Key point 8 in the Summary states:-
A number of studies have shown that 40% of released pheasants and red-legged partridges (and possibly more) are predated by foxes, i.e., of the 35.8 million kg total biomass of surplus gamebirds released in Britain each year, around 14.3 million kg is predated by foxes. Since an adult fox requires 180 kg of meat to support itself for a year, data from the gamebird-shooting industry show that predation on pheasants and red-legged partridges provides enough food to support 80,000 foxes for a full year. The availability of carrion from gamebirds that die of other causes could support anything up to a further 120,000 foxes for a year, although it is not possible to determine the proportion of the available gamebird carrion that is consumed by foxes, how much is consumed by other scavengers, and how much decomposes. The number of foxes supported by predating and/or scavenging non-native gamebirds has increased 10-fold since the turn of the century
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.
The report of campaign and project work 2018-22 referred to above shows that nests and chicks are predated by several mammals and birds, all of which benefit from the large food supply provided by gamebirds released for shooting.
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 new shooting policy will provide a sound framework for regulation of Pheasant shoots, particularly limitations on the numbers that are released but not shot and picked up.
Unfortunately, a paper from the UK and Ireland Curlew Action Group, published in June 2021, “Recovering the Eurasian Curlew [Numenius arquata] in the UK and Ireland: progress since 2015 and looking ahead’ (Douglas et al, 2021 British Birds 114: 341–350.) – see here – referred to the ‘immediate and overriding challenges facing Curlews’ and cited, quite rightly, ‘intense predation pressure’ as one of the threats to the species. The paper concluded with 12 recommended ‘priority actions’, only one of which referenced this threat, effectively kicking the issue into the long grass by only calling for ‘research into how to reduce mesopredator densities in the countryside’. The paper makes no mention at all of the new RSPB policy, although several of its joint authors are RSPB Staff.
An article summarising the research carried out already in Shropshire, summarised above, and showing that action to control the release of Pheasants is needed urgently if local extinction is to be avoided, has been accepted for publication in the December 2021 issue of British Birds. Douglas et al submitted a reply, which prompted a response from Shropshire. Douglas et al were unable to agree a response to the second letter (not surprisingly, given the conflicting aims of the members of the Action Group), but GWCT submitted a response. A further response from Shropshire was not published. The complete correspondence is available by following these links:
- Recovering the Eurasian Curlew in the UK and Ireland (Smith with reply by Douglas). British Birds 2021
- Recovering the Eurasian Curlew in the UK and Ireland (Smith). British Birds 2022
- Recovering the Eurasian Curlew in the UK and Ireland (Hoodless and unpublished draft response by Smith).
SOS Save our Curlews Campaign Co-ordinator
Thanks to British Birds for making Saving England’s lowland Eurasian Curlews (Colwell et al) available immediately fter publication. 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 British Birds can see a sample copy on their website, at https://britishbirds.co.uk/.
The SOS Co-ordinator for the “Save Our Curlews” campaign is Leo Smith 01694 720 296 (firstname.lastname@example.org).