Dear Readers, a long time ago I was walking along a beach on the mainland of Orkney when I found a skull, light as paper, with a long, delicate, curved bill attached. I could not believe the fragility of it, the precision of the two mandibles – they were more like surgical instruments than something that was once attached to a bird. It was the beak of a curlew, our largest wading bird.
That beak is there to enable the curlew to probe deeply into the mud for worms and other invertebrates, more deeply than any other bird in the country, and so it relies on the pattern of tides for its food. Its chicks, however, are incubated and hatched in the barest of scrapes in the ground. It’s been noted that curlews sometimes nest close to kestrels, so that the birds of prey will help to keep winged predators from their chicks, even though the kestrels are not averse to an occasional curlew snack.
Curlews are amongst the most widespread of waders – they turn up in coastal areas from Europe to as far east as Japan, and as far south as Cape Town in South Africa. Nonetheless, the curlew is Red Listed here due to a decline in the UK breeding population – as over 30 percent of European curlews breed in the UK, this gives serious cause for concern. What’s to blame? The usual suspects, and a more unusual one. The intensification of agriculture and the way that moors have been converted to forestry are factors in the decline of many species, but curlew chicks and eggs are heavily predated by foxes in particular. Many of the conservation organisations that are trying to save the species point at the shooting industry. The biomass of pheasants and red-legged partridges released into the British countryside solely for people to shoot is the equivalent of a quarter of British wild bird biomass annually, and as much as half in August. All these semi-tame fat birds wandering about has led to an increase in the fox population, and so the system is unbalanced – there are more foxes about, and therefore less curlews. Of course, the causes of the decline of a particular bird are many and various, but I would be looking very hard at these figures. Incidentally, the shooting industry were asked to reduce the number of gamebirds released this year because of avian flu, but the majority of birds were still released as usual.
If I sound even more angry than usual this week, it’s because curlews could be heard all across the UK when I was growing up – we used to stay in a caravan in Whitstable in Kent, right next door to the famous oyster beds and mudflats. The curlew’s call would mix with the cries of the lapwings and the other waders, and it was the very sound of being on holiday. The sound of curlews sends a shiver up my spine even now. The call was recorded at Wexford, County Cork by Irish Wildlife Sounds
All endangered species need a champion, and the curlew found one in the form of Mary Colwell, who is chair of the Curlew Recovery Project, wrote a well-received book called ‘Curlew Moon‘ about a 500 mile walk that she undertook to visit the sites in Ireland, Wales and England where the birds can be found and who founded World Curlew Day, which takes place on April 21st each year. Rather than just getting angry, she got busy, and has arguably galvanised more action to conserve these remarkable birds than any other single individual – she was named as one of the BBC’s Top 50 Most Influential Conservationists in the UK, and, with Green MP Caroline Lucas, managed to get a Natural History GCSE onto the UK curriculum. Largely thanks to her activism, Downing Street announced that the curlew was ‘the panda of UK conservation’. Let’s hope that her drive and passion, her ability to engage with farmers, gamekeepers, landowners and members of the public, can yet turn the fate of the curlew around.