Watch your step to help ground-nesting birds in the uplands and lowlands

Image: Eurasian curlew by a nest. Credit: David Tipling.

Over half of England’s most threatened breeding bird species nest on the ground, including the iconic curlew 

The UK's breeding population of curlew is of international importance, it’s estimated to represent a quarter of the global population! This World Curlew Day, we wanted to shine a spotlight on this incredible species and why they need our help.  

Why are curlew in trouble?  

Nearly half the UK breeding population of curlew has been lost over the last 25 years. Curlew breed on a range of habitats including rough pasture, meadows, moorlands and bogsLike many wading birds, curlews lay their eggs in a nest on the ground – known as a ‘scrape’. The parents incubate the eggs for about four weeks, before the young leave the nest and roam around with their parents for a further five weeks, until fledging. 

Evidence suggests curlew populations are falling due to poor breeding success. Farming is essential to maintain the mosaic of grassland and wetland habitats curlews needYet over the last century, a rise in intensive farming to meet consumer demands for cheaper foodcombined with moorland drainingand an increase in upland conifer plantations, has left fewer suitable breeding areas for curlew to nest in. The predation of eggs and chicks by mammals and birds is also key factor behind poor breeding success. Sadly, the number of young successfully raised each year is no longer enough for curlew to maintain stable populations in many areas 

Eurasian curlew egg in a nest. Credit: Patrick Cashman

What is the RSPB doing to help curlew populations recover?  

We manage habitat for curlew across a number of our reserves including RSPB Geltsdale, Cumbria and RSPB West Sedgemoor, Somerset, but a lot of the work we do for this breeding species takes place in the wider countryside. The RSPB works in partnership with a number of important and dedicated partners to manage the habitats curlew need across upland and lowland England. This approach is known as landscape-scale conservation.  

The RSPB is a founding member of the Curlew Recovery Partnership, a new and exciting initiative, bringing together people with an interest in curlew conservation; including land managers, farmers, gamekeepers, policymakers and researchers. Launched in March 2021, the partnership supports and engages with anyone interested in saving England’s curlews. It helps share research and best practice and offers support with future funding for those working on the ground. Find out how to join this partnership and how to contribute to curlew survey and monitoring here. 

The new Curlew Life Project was launched in April 2021. ‘Curlews in Crisis’ is a 4-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 countries of the UK by improving breeding habitat conditions.  

Efforts will be greatest in Wales and Northern Ireland where the declines are most severe (69% and 82% decline since the mid-1990s). In Scotland and Northern England, we are developing ‘centres of excellence for curlew conservation’. 

Curlew chick foraging at RSPB Geltsdale.

What you can do to help  

You don’t have to be a landowner to help curlew. During the breeding season there are some simple steps you can take to help protect the remaining breeding sites for these iconic birds, while you enjoy watching them from a distance.  

Visitors to ground nesting bird habitats, can help keep nests safe by keeping their dogs on leads and sticking to footpaths. Curlew and many other moorland birds nest on the ground and are very sensitive to people or animals nearby. If you hear alarm calls, then you may be too close to a nest, so back away. Being disturbed may cause the parent to leave  a nest until they think that danger has passed and it can also cause chicks to scatter, making them more vulnerable to predators. When off leads, dogs can run through nesting areas, causing additional stress to breeding birds, even if they don’t physically harm them  

Fire is another very real risk to birds breeding in upland and lowland areas. It doesn’t need to be baking hot for fires to catch and spread quickly, even cold winters can dry out grasses, heather and gorse enough for fires to spread quickly. If you are planning to enjoy the countryside this spring, pack a picnic not a BBQ, take great care when disposing of cigarette butts and take all your litter home.   

With curlew populations falling nationally, we’re fighting to save this special bird and others like it. With the support of our members we can help create ideal habitat for ground nesting birds, by restoring bogs, protecting sensitive sites and employing farmland advisors. Our conservation work helps keep these birds and their chicks safe, but as a charity, we can only continue this vital work if people support us. More than a million people already support our work as RSPB members – will you join them today?