This week we're focusing on the plight of the curlew - a bird that would be at the top of many lists to be the UK's totemic bird - not just because our coasts and estuaries host internationally important numbers of them in the winter, not only because our hills and moors (and some lowland areas too) are places that are globally significant breeding areas for curlew but as much because their wild presence and evocative calls are part of  the soul of our countryside. They have woven their existence into our consciousness, our art and culture and yet they are in trouble. 

I'm delighted that Rob Yorke offered this guest blog as part of our series looking at the issue from his distinctive perspective. His aim is always keen to engender dialogue and debate and we would be delighted if this blog did just that.

Rob Yorke is an independent  rural commentator and surveyor who works with conservationists and writes opinions/blogs and chairs debates. Here, for the #CurlewCrisis, he reiterates a message from a guest blog he did for Martin Harper (RSPB’s Director of Global Conservation) in 2013 about working closer together for conservation.

“How I miss the call of the waders over the valley”. The farmer sighed as we headed down through the scrubby hillside towards grassy fields. “Especially the curlew. Its bubbling call, returning to the valley every spring, was so haunting yet uplifting at the same time. We had smaller tractors back then - lighter over boggy fields, cows grazing on the hill broke up bracken, arable crops were sown in the spring and hay meadows cut once birds had nested. An old boy wandered about, gun under arm, keeping crow and fox at bay until curlew chicks were cleverer in finding cover“.

An anecdotally bucolic era fifty years ago before things started to change. In 1955 a radio program, ostensibly a government information service, was launched to ‘help farmers become more efficient’. Grants followed to drain rushy fields, finance to buy larger tractors, new hybrid grasses enabled two cuts of silage – ‘we were encouraged to move with the times’ – even when curlew’s nesting cover disappeared, the rural labour force decreased as tractor horsepower increased. That radio program, now more a lifestyle series, The Archers, continues to run and run.

This week’s RSPB blogs mirror a deep affection for curlew across town and country. Perhaps, as we’ve urbanised, it’s become a poster bird for our lost connection with the countryside, which itself, a continually evolving mesh of changing land use practices and habitats, has caused the bird’s loss. It’s complex for sure. Habitat for one is never stationary. Curlews are collateral damage in these dynamic processes - while overwintering numbers are boosted by birds from abroad, breeding populations are dangerously low. ‘Sink’ populations unable to increase their productivity within fragmented landscapes of habitat and ruptured prey/predator food webs. It’s not gone unnoticed with no less than three conservation organisations (the RSPB, GWCT and BTO) all currently researching or seeking funds for the curlew.

Much science has already been done. RSPB research in 2001 noted that ‘considerable changes in land-use could benefit generalist predator species or increase the vulnerability of curlew nests to predation’, while in 2013, there were similar issues around upland woodland – see here. In Wales, the use of camera traps recorded sheep accidently trampling nests, while similar cameras today in the Curlew Country Recovery project log nightly visits of ‘nest-hungry’ badgers (remember that badger on Springwatch?). In Ireland, a recently set up Curlew Taskforce has already moved to act on the control of foxes. Our humanly emotional issues around management of predators are valid and justifiable. But this must not let us conflate animal welfare with wildlife conservation, nor pre-judge the motives of those that undertake the works. Any management must be done skilfully, more scientifically than ‘wandering around with a gun’, to ensure that those predators, directly affecting the recovery of specific ground nesting birds, are legally removed at the right time. This is not a ‘joy ride’ in the name of intensive game bird management, nor is it an eradication operation similar to the removal of rats from the Shiants, the ruddy duck from the UK or hedgehogs from the Outer Hebrides; but a coordinated targeted science-informed exercise as part of a mosaic of management and habitat related actions specifically required for curlew.

Mary Colwell, a broadcaster specialising in nature, has walked 500 miles to raise the profile of this iconic species. ‘There’s no doubt that we care for this bird, we coalesce around its charisma – drawn to its vulnerable niche in our human influenced landscape’ says Colwell. But that’s the rub – the intertwined connection wildlife and humans. Colwell sounds a word of warning -”we have hit a wall where people can’t face up to what pragmatic conservation means on the ground – the curlew is bringing into focus a need for us to come together to engage public opinion in having to swallow an un-cuddly bitter conservation pill if we really wish to deliver public benefit by saving this bird.”

Last week, the RSPB posthumously awarded a medal for conservation science to Dr Dick Potts. He was an expert in such matters. His so-called ‘three-legged stool’, referred to three key elements all being in place at the same time - habitat cover for nesting, habitat to provide invertebrate chick-food and management of predators – still holds true today for many ground-nesting birds. The RSPB are about to publish more research reinforcing further understanding of this intricate relationship between habitat and predation. Time is short, as Graham Appleton of WaderTales told me, “these are desperate times for the curlew and we need to use all the tools at our disposal to increase the breeding success of the Eurasian curlew”.

Let us diverge from partisan sentimentality to converge on common ground to work pragmatically together for this bird. Offence is not a defence when it comes to saving wildlife – especially if it risks jeopardising the financial survival of curlew initiatives when organisations use a defence that they can’t fund effective, science-informed conservation for fear of offending the public by managing predators.

Alongside the support from those that care for curlews, the fund raising and research by various conservation NGOs, there are farmers like Patrick Laurie who “will keep on working for the birds this spring because giving up is not an option”.

The rest of us can only be braver in keeping all options open in finding all the ways  - brave or otherwise - to help save curlews.

Rob Yorke blogs at www.robyorke.co.uk and welcomes guest blogs/feedback

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