World Curlew Day guest blog by Seán Woods and Neal Warnock, Senior Conservation Officers for RSPB NI 

Curlew in flight wings outstretched against a clear blue sky 

Today is World Curlew Day, and to mark it Seán Woods and Neal Warnock from our operations team, are sharing some information about RSPB’s latest work to save the species in Northern Ireland. 
The once familiar call of the curlew is a sound sadly fading into memories and stories. Since the mid-1980s the breeding curlew population in Northern Ireland has fallen by 82% with the last population estimate for breeding curlews in Northern Ireland being 526 pairs in 2013. RSPB NI believes this number could now be as low as 250 pairs.  

Neal Warnock, senior conservation officer explained, “The main driver of decline in the breeding population of curlews is low productivity caused by predation and a reduction in the extent of suitable habitat. We believe that there are only 10 years to turn the situation around before breeding curlews are lost across the island of Ireland. To help address this issue, the Curlews in Crisis project was developed.” 
Curlews in Crisis is a four-year LIFE Nature project managed by the RSPB. Working closely with project partners, the aim is to stabilise curlew breeding populations within five priority landscapes across the four UK countries with Lough Erne and the Antrim Hills in Northern Ireland forming two of these landscapes. Curlews in Crisis is possible thanks to generous support from the EU LIFE programme, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency and other statutory bodies across the UK.  

Why Lough Erne?  

Morning view of Lough Erne as the sun rises 

Lough Erne is the third largest freshwater lake in the UK, divided into the Upper Lough to the south and the Lower Lough to the north. The 1985-87 Breeding Wader Survey for County Fermanagh recorded 320 pairs of curlews with Upper Lough Erne holding 173 pairs and Lower Lough Erne holding 74 pairs. Three decades on, Lough Erne hosts 60 pairs of curlews which is crucially important in an all-Ireland context.  
Seán Woods, senior conservation officer, expanded, With Lough Erne now hosting 25% of Northern Ireland’s and 20% of the island of Ireland’s breeding curlews the Curlews in Crisis project will span 1,187 hectares of mostly private land on the Upper Lough and RSPB’s 210 hectare Lower Lough Erne Islands reserve. Our reserve was first established in 1968 and currently supports 39 breeding pairs, through this project we will put in place habitat management and direct interventions to give curlews the best chance to thrive.” 

Why Antrim Hills?

tractor mowing rush with snow capped Slemish mountain in the background 

In 2017, a survey conducted by RSPB NI and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency estimated 64 pairs of breeding curlews across the Antrim Hills. This equates to up to 25% of the Northern Ireland breeding population. The majority of these pairs were found in the Glenwherry area, which supported 49 pairs. This represents the largest remaining concentration of nesting curlews on the island of Ireland on privately owned land. 

Curlew chick in long grass

Neal Warnock senior conservation officer, expanded, “We have been working with farmers and landowners in the area since the late 1980s and for the past decade, the number of curlew pairs in the Glenwherry area has been stable at around 45 pairs. However, despite increases in the number of pairs which manage to hatch young annually, their overall productivity (the number of fledged young per pair) is still consistently below that needed to maintain the population. The Curlews in Crisis project is designed to address this. 

“We will be working with more than 100 farmers and landowners across the 8,000 hectare project area which largely supports beef and sheep farming and is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular landscapes in Northern Ireland.”  

Lough Erne Solutions 

Aerial view of a tractor rush cutting at Humphreys Island

Seán continued, “We aim to deliver site specific capital works to protect, manage and enhance habitat for curlews along with predator control. The Lough Erne project team will work with up to 50 farmers directly or through private contractors to deliver hedge lowering, conifer and scrub removal to reduce cover/roosts for predators, the creation of new wet features such as scrapes to improve access to invertebrates, drainage ditch blocking and predator fencing to protect eight curlew nests.” 

Antrim Plateau Solutions . 

Picture of a scrape filled with water in a green field 

Neal continued, “Our work in the Antrim Plateau will be largely similar to that of Lough Erne as well as with drain reprofiling to make existing drains more accessible and attractive to chicks. We will be working with local landowners and contractors to help us achieve the main aim of the project – an annual productivity of 0.5 fledged young per pair (or one fledged chick per pair every two years).

“In Glenwherry, for the first time, we will also be trialling the use of nest exclusion predator fencing. This will involve erecting temporary fences around a number of nests each breeding season. This intervention has been proven elsewhere to be very effective in protecting wader nests from mammalian predators. We will also install a number of cameras close to nests to gain an improved insight into which predators are moving around the site and interacting with breeding curlews at or near their nests to help inform future management.” 

“Building on the monitoring methodology first developed by the Glenwherry team, each curlew pair identified in early spring will be closely monitored throughout the breeding season to estimate breeding success. Habitat conditions and predator abundance will also be monitored annually.” 

Monitoring for the future 

Curlew standing in a grassy field

The RSPB will monitor curlews’ response and the impact on habitat conditions and will be adapted annually. The data collected will support the development of case studies to inform future land-use policy, particularly the package of support that farmers will require beyond the project to deliver for curlews and provide wider environmental benefits. 

To find out more about the Curlews in Crisis project in Northern Ireland and across the UK visit the Curlews in Crisis project website

  • Why has the hooded crow and magpie population been allowed to mushroom alarmingly?   They’re fearless even in gardens now. With curlew nests on open ground, it’s likely that airborne predation takes a heavier toll than mammals.  In the 50s/60s gamekeepers waged war on them, and so did I, staking out meat bait with a .22 rifle.  Hoodies were a rarity back then, and magpies avoided our rural garden, to the great benefit of all birds, both garden and farmland, which was my aim.