Welcome to the latest news and updates from the Orkney Native Wildlife Project

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It is amazing to think that this is our 100th issue. Such a lot of news to share since we first started. Now that the 5,700 trap boxes are fully active there has been a notable increase in the numbers of stoats caught. In March alone 237 non-native stoats were caught, so by the end of March 2021 the total was around 1,300. On World Curlew Day, 21 April, we learn more about the curlew.

‘’Curlew are like salt and pepper. They add seasoning to a landscape, otherwise a mudflat can seem quite grey and dull but you hear a curlew calling over it, it just lights up.” – Mary Colwell.

We are blessed with a good number of curlews living and, most importantly breeding, here.

On World Curlew Day, 21 April, it’s important to understand curlew populations across Britain are suffering dramatic losses, but if you live in Orkney you’d be forgiven for not noticing this stark fact. The curlew population here is still widespread when compared to the rest of the UK, however the fact remains that the population is at a critical stage. Although there are some areas of Britain and Ireland which are seeing an increase in curlew numbers, the overall trend for the curlew is grim and on the verge of a point of no return. On average we have lost 60% of curlews throughout England and Scotland since the 1980s and in Wales it is over 80%. In recent years the number of chicks raised by curlew pairs has been poor and this needs to change to increase the breeding population, otherwise the declines will continue. Curlews need to raise at least one chick every two years for a sustainable population. 

 The moving piece of stained-glass art of a curlew pictured right is created by Dr. Rachel Taylor who is not only a very talented artist but is a senior ecologist working for the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) in Wales and has a passionate interest in curlews. She has seen with her own eyes the decline in the breeding curlew population in Wales.

Compare the full colour version with Dr. Taylor’s latest curlew stained-glass piece, pictured left, which is so different from her previous one – you’ll notice it is almost translucent which represents the ever-disappearing curlew numbers.

Orkney curlew numbers are healthier by comparison but are also declining, largely due to the same reasons on the mainland. Land management practices are making the available habitat less favourable for breeding curlews, and climate change could also be having a major effect on productivity as we are seeing more extreme weather events during the spring – a critical time for breeding curlews. This decline is further exacerbated by artificially high levels of predator species in curlew breeding areas. A big threat for curlew here in Orkney is the invasive non-native stoat. It is a skilled hunter with a high metabolic rate so it needs to eat a lot and can easily prey on the ground-nesting curlew eggs and chicks.

RSPB Scotland works hard to ensure there is appropriate habitat for curlew at several reserves including at the Loons and Brodgar. Curlews require varied grass structures for feeding and nesting which is best created by managed grazing from cattle. The local RSPB Scotland team in Orkney works with local farmers who graze on their reserves in a successful collaboration. Not only are the reserve team able to manage land for curlew and other waders in a sustainable way but local farmers are able to graze their cattle. 

The work we do at ONWP to remove non-native predators will also help the curlew (and other ground-nesting birds) by reducing predation pressure. Appropriate habitat management coupled with invasive species eradication gives the best chance for curlews to not only survive but also thrive in Orkney.

We cannot let the curlew disappear; we cannot let the landscape fall silent. Intensive work is being done across the UK to save these wonderful birds, and we have a duty here to protect our own curlew population from further decline.

If you would like advice on how to manage your land to benefit curlew, or would like to report a ringed curlew, please contact RSPB Scotland at orkney@rspb.org.uk.

 Photos: Curlew at Brodgar credit Alan Leitch. Curlew credit Ian Francis RSPB images

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