To celebrate World Curlew Day, RSPB England looks to the North Pennines for this week’s blog, where we have been working with volunteers and farmers to monitor threatened wading birds like curlew over the past few years. With our monitoring halted for the time being, Chris Jones reflects on our learnings and looks ahead to the future.


Photo credit: Dave Morris

At the end of January, Chris Jones started his role as a Conservation Officer for the North based in Newcastle. One of his first roles was to organise the 2020 wader surveys in the North Pennines.

The North Pennines is the most important area for breeding curlew in England as the area supports a higher number of breeding pairs per kilometre than elsewhere. Since 2013, we have been building relationships with 37 farms in the North Pennines to monitor the number of breeding pairs of birds such as curlew, snipe, lapwing, redshank, black grouse and oystercatchers and where possible to understand how many chicks they are producing each year. We have also worked together with farmers  to introduce more positive management for these bird species on in-bye farmland (enclosed grassland below the moorland line). For example, we have helped farmers to tap into agri-environment funds that not only benefit wildlife, but also help to support their farm businesses.

We are very fortunate to have such a dedicated team of volunteers and farmers involved - the wader surveys have proven to be a great way for local people to not only engage with the natural world but to also be involved in building our knowledge of what we need to do for curlews and other birds of conservation concern. 14 skilled volunteers help to carry out the annual surveys, in addition to RSPB staff based in the North East of England.

Gathering in February ahead of the 2020 season of survey work, the team were excited for the season ahead. Although we have sadly had to pause our monitoring work for this season, in response to the government restrictions around Covid19, our amazing volunteering community are already looking to encourage more people to take part in this important work next year.

As one of the project’s volunteers, Caron Henderson describes her experiences as part of the team: “To me the curlew is the bird that really epitomises the North Pennines. It is the symbol of the windswept moors as it calls high overhead and glides over rough pasture. I feel like spring has really arrived when the curlews return here. I’ve seen a lot of them this year, much lower down from the moors in the pasture around our house, which is unusual but a lovely treat during my daily exercise. I volunteer for the surveys as I have a great deal of respect for the RSPB and its work. I do it because I want to contribute and make a difference, to help conserve the amazing nature that surrounds us and is struggling against so many challenges such as climate change and habitat destruction. I also do it as its really good fun!”

Photo credit: Dave Morris

The breeding population of curlew has declined by 48% across the UK since the mid-90s. At the same time the UK holds a quarter of the global breeding population which means we have a big responsibility to the world to look after curlews. Many of the other species that occur in the Pennines are also in trouble; curlew along with black grouse and lapwing are all RED listed in the Birds of Conservation Concern (BoCC) which means their populations have declined by more than 50% in the 25 years. Oystercatcher, redshank and snipe are AMBER listed in BoCC, which means they have declined by 25-50% in 25 years. This makes it even more important that we ensure the North Pennines remains a stronghold for all of these species.

Dot Coe (another of our volunteers) talks about her involvement in the survey project and the birds she sees in her local area:

“It appealed to me on many levels, the fact I am a researcher in my working life, the idea of getting exercise at the same time as doing something useful, and the access to areas which would not normally be accessible. The farmers, as well, are great to get to know and learn from. 

We are lucky to see curlews everyday once they return to the uplands to breed. The return date of curlews and lapwings is noted and seen as a marker of spring. The curlew gather in the lambing fields around our house. I have seen flocks of 30+ probing the wet ground with their distinctive beaks. At times it is hard to believe they are such an endangered species.”

Although the project is on hold for this season, next year, we are planning to expand the project further, linking up farms on a landscape scale throughout the North Pennines, which has the potential to make a huge difference for wildlife.

Photo credit: Dave Morris

In light of this, the RSPB plans to more than double the number of farms and volunteers engaged with the project over the next 5 years, and we are looking for local funders to help support this expansion.

Reflecting on the significance of the species in the local landscape, Chris Woodley-Stewart, Director of the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty Partnership shares: “The return of curlew to the hills of the North Pennines is always something to celebrate. The first time you hear it, it pulls you up short and fills you with the sense that better days are ahead, days full of new life and opportunity. I think that matters this year more than ever.”

To find out more about the global threats Curlew face, visit our website: