Leica Sport Optics continues its commitment to supporting nature and wildlife conservation and is proud to be partnering with Curlew Action, an organisation at the heart of efforts to save the Eurasian Curlew across the UK and Ireland. Curlew Action help explain why Curlews are declining and consider longer-term solutions.
Although Eurasian Curlews still breed across much of the UK’s uplands and grasslands, around half of our breeding pairs have been lost over the last 25 years, most notably in the south. They are Britain’s largest wading bird, identifiable by a haunting, musical call which is deeply evocative. There are now around 58,000 pairs across the UK, but as few as 500 breeding pairs south of the Peak District. The UK holds about a quarter of the breeding birds in Europe and if these populations disappear the loss will be immeasurable.
Why are Curlews declining, and what can we do about it?
There are currently many interlinked causes to the decline in Curlew numbers – together, these issues are also further exacerbating one another. Curlews favour open landscapes for breeding as they provide both long grass for nesting and hiding from predators, and shorter vegetation for their chicks to feed in. The rise of afforestation, urbanisation and developments in agriculture have brought intensive grassland management, the drainage of wetlands and fragmentation of formerly open habitats. This has meant breeding landscapes have changed drastically, making them increasingly unsuitable for ground-nesting birds like the Curlew.
Alongside modified habitats, the centre of many of the issues for breeding waders are the increased populations of predators like foxes and crows. These species are well adapted to exploit newer landscapes like intensively managed grassland – an example of the limited offering to cover nests and young chicks. One solution is to make predation more difficult with fencing around nests to restrict access for ground predators and livestock, or by removing nearby vantage points which might assist avian predators in spotting Curlews.
Unfortunately, predation is not the only issue facing Curlew breeding success. Afforestation (planting trees where there were none previously) is an increasingly significant threat to ground-nesting waders in northern Europe. This practice reduces the amount of open habitat available for nesting waders and evidence suggests it also reduces hatching success up to a kilometre from the forest by offering an advantageous habitat for many predators. Tree-planting is a necessary part of tackling climate change and a popular way for governments to offset carbon emissions, but there are ways to mitigate the adverse effects of this practice. Harry Ewing, a Researcher at the University of East Anglia, recommends that forestry departments work closely with ornithologists to ensure that plantations are configured in a way which minimises negative impacts on breeding waders.
Compounding these issues – intensive grassland management has caused vegetation structure to become unsuitable for Curlews during chick rearing. Grasses in these areas are mown more frequently to provide food for cattle and create dense silage fields, making it harder for chicks to forage and hide from predators. To make matters worse, climate change has resulted in wetter and warmer weather, meaning mowing often happens earlier in the year when breeding Curlews are most vulnerable, creating a higher potential for nest and chick destruction.
Improving grassland management is a key factor in supporting Curlew recovery and researchers are
working to identify the types of grassland management that that promote higher rates of fledging success. Obtaining this information will allow Curlew Action to focus conservation work on landscapes where actions are likely to be most effective.
Curlews must survive to two years old to breed, but the first months of their life are where mortality rates are highest. To help Curlews safely navigate this perilous early period, organisations like Curlew Country, Wildfowl &Wetlands Trust (WWT) and The Dutchy Estates have used a technique called headstarting. This process begins with the eggs being incubated and hatched in captivity, then chicks are raised in pens until they are ready to fledge. These headstarting projects have seen remarkable results, with breeding success rates increasing tenfold in some cases. However, Geoff Hilton of WWT has pointed out that this is not a long-term solution to the Curlew crisis and serves more as an effective “sticking plaster” to keep dwindling populations from extinction. Even the most expensive and well-resourced headstarting projects can only provide tens or possibly hundreds of birds – a much smaller number than is needed.
As with any measure taken to improve Curlew breeding success, it must be part of a wider, long-term
solution to manage and restore habitats so that they are capable of hosting healthy populations. So, what can be done to protect the UK’s Curlews in the long term?
Long-term solutions to the Curlew crisis
There are some practical steps that can be taken to help recover landscapes, alongside the techniques mentioned so far. Agri-environment schemes can help increase the suitability of landscapes for Curlews and other ground-nesting birds and can also incentivise Curlew-friendly grassland management which would facilitate the reduction of predator impacts across landscapes. The most way effective and direct way to do this would be to encourage and engage farmers and landowners to work together to create large-scale changes to help ground nesting birds. Additionally, working with forestry and development projects directly would minimise the effect on Curlews.
The bigger picture issue with Curlew protection efforts is the continuation of the degradation of our
landscapes – in general the UK’s wild places and wildlife are under threat. Every individual has a role in reversing negative impacts on our environment – from farmers and landowners to dog walkers and
urbanites. Spreading awareness around the issues Curlews and ground-nesting birds face would
encourage change in how our land is used and adapted – whether this is through direct management, or through our choices as voters and consumers. If more people get involved in conservation, organisations dedicated to saving Curlews will be properly facilitated, allowing everyone to do their bit to help the Curlew and other ground-nesting birds to recover.
Curlew Action is at the heart of efforts to save the Eurasian Curlew right across the UK and Ireland. We raise awareness, support local groups, connect people and projects and spearhead new initiatives. We are also at the centre of putting nature back into the heart of education. We will save what we love and know about – and Curlew Action are determined to make that happen and be part of a nationwide, long-term solution.