Senior Conservation Officer Hywel Maggs talks about the work we are doing with farmers in Scotland to help save the curlew.

Saving the curlew in Scotland

Scotland holds approximately half of UK breeding curlews. Most are found on moorland and hill farms, but like the rest of the UK population, they are declining. In areas such as Cairngorms National Park, Caithness and the Clyde Valley, farmers are working with conservationists to help curlews survive.

Here, farmers are grazing and mowing their land sympathetically to provide nest sites and creating wet areas to attract creepy crawlies for curlews to eat. Much of this is being made possible by farmers entering into Government-funded wildlife-friendly farming schemes to help a broad range of wildlife, including curlews as well as other wading birds such as lapwings, oystercatchers, snipe and redshanks.

In the eastern Cairngorms, around 20 farmers are working with us to help curlews as part of a project that brings together volunteers, conservationists, farmers, agricultural agents and estates. Working together, it has been possible to create muddy feeding pools and tussocky fields to help curlew breed successfully. Volunteers have surveyed 20 project farms where these habitats are being provided and found there are approximately 115 pairs of curlew. These pairs and their broods are regularly found nesting and feeding in the specially managed fields.

A site in the eastern Cairngorms at Tomintoul which provides breeding grounds for waders - there are several pairs of curlew and farmers are managing fields to help them

Since 2011, the number of curlews at many of these sites has remained stable or even increased, bucking the national trend. As part of the same project, curlew chicks have been ringed with coloured plastic rings to monitor survival and movements. Young birds have been seen as far afield as Ireland and Devon in the winter, with many returning to the same project farms they were raised to breed as adults.    

Still in its early days, the RSPB-led Caithness Curlew Trial Management Project site is part of a five-year research project involving six sites spread across important areas for curlew in the UK. Like the other sites it consists of an area of around two thousand hectares (nearly 3,000 football pitches) including land on and around RSPB Scotland Broubster Leans nature reserve. The Caithness management site involves working closely with nine farms where we carry out intensive curlew surveys, habitat and predator monitoring to measure changes resulting from a combination of habitat management and predator control to see if these can benefit breeding curlews.

Grassy areas that have become unsuitable for curlews rearing chicks, normally by becoming too tall and dense, are then mown by the farmers once the breeding season has finished. Subsequent grazing ahead of the following spring will get these areas into better condition for the next breeding season. The work both improves the quality of grazing on the farm and benefits the curlews and other breeding waders such as lapwings, snipe, redshanks and oystercatchers.

John Sutherland mowing rushes and rough grasses on his land in the Caithness Curlew Trial Management Site

Adam and Louise Scott farm part of the Caithness Trial Management Project site; their family have lived there since the 1700’s. Adam says: “The calls of the curlew on a midsummer evening in the far North are really special and well worth preserving. We are pleased to be part of the RSPB Curlew Trail Management Project to develop ways of safeguarding this beautiful and endangered species.”

Doug Telfer’s 320 hectare sheep farm is near Crawfordjohn in South Lanarkshire. It’s one of 60 farms involved in the Clyde Valley Wader Initiative – a partnership project between the RSPB Scotland, farmers, SAC Consulting and the Scottish Government’s local agricultural office.

RSPB Scotland volunteers surveying his farm have picked up an impressive 62 pairs of breeding curlews, lapwings, snipe, redshanks and oystercatchers across the farm. Doug attributes these high numbers to various factors. These include providing wet areas scattered across the farm (when draining he takes care to always leave some wetter areas), taking care to avoid nests during farming operations, as well as the fox and crow control by the local gamekeeper.

He says: “I remember years ago when my son was leaving for London, we were packing his bags into the car as a whaup (local name for curlew) flew over singing and I said “enjoy that – cause you won’t be hearing it for a while!”. It’s a real joy having so many whaups, pewits (local name for lapwing) and other birds at Glendouran. Glendouran is 40 miles from Edinburgh and 40 miles from Glasgow – but three miles from the moon! We’re that high up and so winters can be harsh - so when the whaups return ever year, as they have done in recent weeks, it’s great because you know spring is just round the corner.”

The future of this bird has been intertwined with the lives of our hill farmers for thousands of years and their support is key to turning round the fortunes of this species, sadly being lost from many areas of the UK. 

Find out more about the crisis our curlews are facing here, and discover more about these distinctive birds here. Our Food and Farming webpage has more on the our partnership work with farmers across the UK.