World Curlew Day
April 21st is World Curlew Day created by Curlew Action’s Mary Colwell in 2017 to raise awareness of this highly threatened bird. The curlew is a UK Biodiversity Action Plan species and one of the Galloway & Southern Ayrshire Biosphere’s priority species.
Today was chosen as World Curlew Day because it is also the feast day of St Beuno, the patron saint of curlews. Legends tell the story of St Beuno travelling across the sea from the Lleyn peninsula to Anglesey when a sudden gust of wind swept his sermon book into the ocean. A curlew picked the sermon book out of the sea and left it to dry on some nearby rocks, and by way of thanks St Beuno blessed the curlews and decreed that forevermore curlew nests would be hard to find and thus protected from man and beast. Curlew nests are indeed hard to find, though sadly St Beuno’s blessing seems to have waned in recent decades as this enigmatic bird has seen a dramatic decline in numbers. Over the last forty years the curlew population has declined by 60% and its breeding range has contracted by 17%. As a result, the curlew has been placed on the red list and labelled the most pressing conservation bird in the UK.
The decline is prevalent in the south of Scotland mainly due to poor reproductive success. Curlews need to produce on average 0.48-0.62 fledglings per pair per year for the local population to remain stable. Their current rate of reproduction is well below this threshold, particularly in our region. One of the key driving factors in this poor reproductive success is the local abundance of small-medium generalist predators such as fox and carrion crows, who predate upon eggs and chicks. Changes in land management have allowed predators to proliferate beyond the natural capacity of the local ecosystem, thus increasing nest predation upon ground-nesting birds like the curlew.
Land use change leading to habitat loss has also impacted curlew populations. Earlier harvesting of silage and hay directly disturbs nesting curlews, and drainage of wetlands for improved grazing and arable crops has reduced their foraging habitat. An increase in forest cover is known to reduce suitable habitat for breeding curlews and the expansion of commercial forestry has already had a significant impact here in southern Ayrshire and Galloway.
With an increase in people using the outdoors for recreation there is a risk of increased disturbance to ground-nesting birds. Dogs in particular should be kept on a leash when in curlew habitats like heath, bog and rough grassland, as they may intentionally or accidently disturb, damage and predate upon curlew nests.
However, all is not lost. The RSPB have been leading the Curlew Recovery Programme which began implementation in 2015. The goal of the project is to better understand the management practices that benefit curlews and propose a plan of action to help reverse the species’ national and global decline, also raising awareness of the species’ plight among the general public, land managers and partner organizations. To further this cause Curlew Action was launched in 2016 and actively works to research curlew ecology, support and foster curlew conservation, raise public awareness and facilitate outreach and community involvement.
So, what needs to change and how can you help?
If you are a landowner, you can actively manage your land for curlews by protecting wetland habitat, alter you harvesting to be curlew friendly, reduce disturbance to nesting sites by putting up signs and fencing and sending in records of any nests you find to Curlew Action, Working for Waders, SWSEIC, Birdtrack or iRecord.
If you are a member of the public and you are out and about, please keep your dog on a lead in areas where ground nesting birds might be found. Record any curlews you see to Birdtrack, iNaturalist or iRecord and if you do find a nest, please try to avoid disturbing it. An important note: iNaturalist should not be used to record bird nests as the data is public.
You can actively help sponsor and financially support Curlew Action as an individual or as a business and depending on where you live there may even be a local curlew group that offers the chance to get involved with hands-on conservation. Working for Waders has been active in curlew conservation in Galloway and can be reached for more information via email@example.com.