Janet Fairclough works with farmers in the North Pennines to help them give nature a home on their land. Here she explains how farmers are making small changes to give curlews the best chance of breeding success.

In the North Pennine Dales, our work with farmers and land managers helps them encourage curlews and other breeding waders to breed successfully on their land.

The curlew is an iconic bird, and their return to the hills heralds the start of spring. By the end of March, conversations with farmers in the North Pennines will mostly start with them informing me that their curlews are back. It’s clear that farmers are very proud and enthusiastic about ‘their’ curlews.

In the North Pennine dales of Teesdale, Weardale and the Allen Valleys, there are more breeding curlews than anywhere else in mainland UK. This area therefore has huge potential to help boost the curlew’s population and prospects; the farmers and land managers there are the key to safeguarding their future.

Image: Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

Curlews nest on the ground, which makes them vulnerable to being destroyed by farm machinery or trampled by livestock, particularly where modern farming systems are adopted. Maintaining traditional farming methods is crucial in conserving breeding curlew habitat.

Traditional hay meadows provide excellent nesting habitat for curlews. Farmers take their sheep off these fields in the spring, shutting them up and allowing the grass to grow long. By putting off mowing the grass until July, farmers give curlews enough time to nest and raise their chicks. The hay is stored in bales and provides valuable food for livestock during the winter, when the grass in the fields stops growing.

Grazed pastures and allotments also provide a home for curlews, as long as the right numbers and types of livestock are available to provide a mixture of short and long grass across the farm. Grazing with both cattle and sheep provides the right mixture of grass length and density for curlews and reducing the number of livestock in a field during the breeding season helps to prevent nests being trampled.

Soft rush – a thick type of grass - is an important aspect of the landscape. It provides shelter for stock, particularly young lambs, and is an important habitat for a wide range of wildlife. Whilst a scattering of soft rush tussocks across a field provides shelter, unfortunately soft rush can also be invasive and troublesome, and sometimes needs to be kept it in check. If more than a third of a field is covered, it will no longer be suitable for breeding waders.

There are several ways to stop soft rush taking over. Small areas can be maintained by cutting them after the bird breeding season has finished. However, when there is far too much rush, we need to do more than cutting them, so have mostly been using a method called weed wiping.

A weed wiper is a machine that is towed behind a quad bike and is a useful way of tackling large infestations. It has a rotating brush which is set to a suitable height so that it applies a herbicide directly to the rushes stem. This means we can kill the rush without damaging the other grasses or any flowering plants in the field.

Robert Ridley farms in the Allen Valleys, Northumberland. He is one of 20 farmers in the area that benefited from us producing a rush management plan last year. 

He says: “From a farmer’s point of view, areas of rush, if left unchecked, encroach more each year, which is detrimental to both wading birds and livestock. Farming and conservation works hand in hand in the North Pennines, as most of the time we share the same goals.”

If you're interested in finding out more about the curlew. read our blog on everything you need to know about curlew. To hear the evocative call of the curlew for yourself, you can listen to a recording here.

Find out more about how the RSPB is working with farmers to secure a home for nature across the UK, as well as projects that are underway to help facilitate a better environment for species like the curlew here