Saving curlews in Wales

Fersiwn Gymraeg ar gael yma.

On World Curlew Day (21 April), our north Wales Conservation Officer, Martin Clift, talks about the importance of working with farmers if we are to save one of Wales’ most endangered birds…

I was sent a picture (below) this morning that made my day.

It's a bit blurry, but this picture, taken by Will, a farmer we work with in north Wales, shows that curlews are back on their breeding grounds preparing for the season. Will knows how much the picture means to me as we’ve been working towards our spring for several months now.

Back in February, the spring still felt a long way away. For what seemed to be weeks in a row, the weather was determined not to give us a break. The temptation to spend these winter evenings curled up in front of the fire either with a good book or watching whatever is on TV is one we all probably share. For several of my February evenings though, I was out and about with Will, working on the Curlew Trial Management project.

Curlews are in a pretty desperate situation in Wales. The population decline has been measured at 68% between 1995 and 2018. Curlews can live up to 30 years, so it's possible an individual curlew has witnessed that entire decline. The trial management project, put simply, is trying to stop extinction of a species from our countryside.

The trial management site in Wales is one of six throughout the UK. At all of these sites, people have had a huge impact on the land that curlews use. Indeed, there are very few areas of land in our country which can be classed as natural, and now curlews are found in the boundaries between semi-natural and created habitat. Typically, this land is farmed for our food.

For areas in the trial management project in Wales, this is predominantly sheep farming. Will is a local farmer and our contractor within the curlew trial management area, and his job is to increase curlew breeding success. Curlews are having a hard time rearing chicks at the moment, and all too often, the eggs or chicks are found by a predator and eaten.

Most farmers in north Wales are sensible of the responsibilities they have as land managers and custodians of our countryside. Will is no different and while I am working with him to help him meet our rigorous standards, we end up discussing the problems that are facing curlews today. This can range from the expansion of forestry, the financial uncertainty facing sheep farmers and how the term ‘public goods’ will come to affect us all. The countryside has a complex and interconnected web of priorities governing how it is managed, which takes some time to get a handle on.

People have shaped this land over thousands of years by removing woodlands. This has provided opportunity for birds such as curlews to thrive, but they are increasingly hemmed into small pockets of land that are fragmented by other land uses, such as forestry and development. This landscape not only squeezes space for curlews but seems perfect for foxes and carrion crows. Even a modest amount of predation of eggs or chicks by them can make the difference between a good season and a write-off.

Ultimately, the future of curlews is in the hands of Will and other farmers who want to do the right things for nature. We need to join up thinking about what our landscapes look like so that species such as curlew can make their choices about how to use it. Without that landscape-scale action, other pressures will overwhelm the small number of pairs that remain in Wales. We have an opportunity for real improvements in what this land provides, rewarding good work and the farming systems that support it. Will is one of the very few who can still take delight in the call of curlews on their land every summer.

I wish the curlews the best of luck in their nesting season. Will they be able to get their chicks into the air this year?

* RSPB Cymru is an active partner of Gylfynir Cymru, a collaboration of organisations working to save curlews in Wales. We are working with Brecon Beacons National Park, British Association for Shooting and Conservation, BTO Cymru, Clwydian Range and Dee Valley AONB, Countryside Alliance, Curlew Country, Farmers Union of Wales, Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, Local Environment Records Centres Wales, National Gamekeepers Organisation, National Trust, Natural Resources Wales, Snowdonia National Park, Welsh Ornithological Society, Welsh Government and Wildlife Trusts Wales.