A blog by Katie Gibb, RSPB's Conservation Officer for Antrim Plateau

The curlew is undoubtedly one of the most recognisable UK bird species; it is entrenched and entangled in our stories, its haunting call is the soundscape that captures the essence of our moorlands.

However, curlews, like many of the UK's farmland birds, have seen dramatic population declines within living memory. Within Northern Ireland alone, they have declined by 82% since 1987, a trend that is unfortunately all too familiar.

Our curlew (the Eurasian curlew) is one of only eight species of this group of birds found worldwide, and two species have gone extinct within the last 50 years. The Eurasian curlew is facing this same threat, large-scale landscape changes throughout the 20th century, including changes to traditional farming practices, land use changes, inappropriate development and drainage have been disastrous for ground-nesting waders like curlews. In addition, predators including foxes and crows thrive in our intensively managed countryside, increasing predation pressures on nests and chicks. The global widespread declines across the breeding range of Eurasian curlews has resulted in the International Union for Conservation of Nature upgrading their conservation status to Near Threatened on their Red List and Vulnerable on the European Red List.

Delivering at scale

Landscape-scale conservation is the concept which meets the need to address the realities of our dramatically changing world. With issues ranging from habitat fragmentation to climate change - large-scale approaches that aim to transcend ecological, economic and social boundaries are essential for tackling the complex conservation challenges we face today. This approach is centred in local communities, building trust and establishing common ground as well as developing networks and taking approaches that influence local action across large spaces. The Environmental Farming Scheme (EFS) Group Facilitation is The Department for Agriculture Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA)'s answer to this model. It establishes and promotes coordinated activity among EFS agreement holders to enhance, restore and preserve biodiversity.

Targeting

The Glenwherry area within the Antrim Plateau is known as a stronghold for the Irish curlew breeding population, with over 49 pairs counted in the last breeding season. This area is a mosaic of habitats, from pristine blanket bog, dry and wet heath and unimproved grasslands, to rushy pastures and improved grasslands - all of which help support nature. This was an ideal site to set up an agri-environment scheme partnership between farmers, DAERA and the RSPB with the overall aim to halt and reverse the decline of this iconic species. Since the scheme started in 2017, we currently have 24 farmers already well established within their plans and with several more waiting for their plans to be accepted. With these farmers, we have the possibility of 3,500 hectares being managed as one unit for curlews and other breeding waders including lapwings and snipe.

Advice is key

Under this scheme we ensure that each farmer has a mosaic of diverse habitats which will help support and encourage waders to return and hopefully successfully breed. On the 24 farms involved in the group in 2019, RSPB NI recorded 28 pairs of curlews and more than 120 pairs of snipe, showing the promise of this management type. With each farmer signing up for a five-year plan, we have an incredible opportunity to ensure that the Glenwherry site is preserved and the curlew population is protected for future generations to come.

Proof of concept

The early success of the EFS in Glenwherry demonstrates the importance of working across a landscape to deliver for nature. Future support schemes should build on this, delivering the right mix of advice support and joined up action, so that the impressive results in Glenwherry can be achieved throughout the countryside.

For more information on the Environmental Farming Scheme visit https://www.daera-ni.gov.uk/topics/rural-development/environmental-farming-scheme-efs

The European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development: Europe investing in rural areas.  This project has received European Union funding under the EFS Group Facilitation.

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