Senior Conservation Officer, Elisabeth Charman gives us an overview of all things curlew conservation in northern England to celebrate World Curlew Day on 21st of April.

Despite the freezing temperatures and the occasional snow flurry, I was reminded last week that spring has indeed arrived in the northern uplands. As I walked in an area of the North Pennines, I was accompanied by lapwings dive bombing, skylarks singing, oystercatchers screeching and of course the incredible call of the curlew. The call of breeding curlew evokes a powerful reaction in me. It instantly takes me back to being 7 years old and discovering the wonder of birds for the first time. Curlew remains a firm favourite bird for me. That haunting, beautiful call defines the uplands and I can’t help but smile each time I hear it.

I was meeting a farmer and scoping out a bird survey route across his grassland. He spoke enthusiastically about all of his birds but the curlew was definitely his favourite too. As we spoke, one starting calling and both our faces lit up. He said he hoped I’d find plenty on our survey. I hope so too…

Curlew conservation is a major RSPB priority. Their sad story is now well known. Curlew have declined by 48% in the UK and have now been lost from several areas all together. Although curlew in the English uplands are probably faring better than elsewhere, the thought of losing “our curlews” doesn’t bare thinking about and now is the time for action. I am immensely proud that as a team we are working on a number of projects helping curlew conservation across northern England.

Across the North Pennines, Janet Fairclough (our Conservation Advisor) is assisting with Countryside Stewardship applications and coordinating wader surveys of farms using a keen volunteer task force. This helps us monitor the status of waders and helps us target places to offer land management advise to further improve conditions for them. Janet and our Conservation Officer, Chris Jones, have been involved with a project to create wader scrapes in an area which is good for curlew but could be even better with some targeted management. Knowing the areas that curlew use and knowing the techniques we can use to create even better habitat for them goes some way to improve their chances of breeding successfully. Chris says:

“I was fortunate to bump into a pre-breeding flock of about 80 curlews recently. It was a fantastic sight to see. Hopefully our work with landowners and partners across the area can help curlews sustain high numbers so that everyone can continue to enjoy this incredible species”.

At our Geltsdale reserve on the Cumbria/Northumberland border, we are working alongside the North Pennines AONB Partnership’s Fellfoot Forward project to create and maintain good breeding habitat for breeding curlew. Curlew are monitored annually on selected survey plots across the reserve by the whole team. These plots which span the in-bye and upland areas of the reserve, currently support around 40-45 pairs. Jen Selvidge, a warden at Geltsdale, who walks many miles each year mapping curlew territories, describes some of the work at Geltsdale: ‘Heading up the hill in the early morning light to the sound of singing curlew is one of the best parts of my job. Finding nests on areas of heather that was cut the previous winter or seeing chicks feeding in the muddy edges of a newly created scrape lower down the hill is very rewarding. The same surveys are repeated each year, allowing us to track bird populations and monitor how the birds respond to management. It’s a privilege to be out surveying these amazing birds and we all look forward to hearing the first call of the returning curlew in early spring’

Up on Hadrian’s Wall, the new Curlew LIFE funded project, ‘Curlews in Crisis’ has kicked off in earnest and Project Officer Christina Taylor and assistant Cara Bell are gearing up for their field season. The LIFE project began earlier this year and aims to provide on the ground action for curlews across the Hadrian’s Wall and Geltsdale area. We are part of a bigger project doing the same in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. The aim is that the project will help halt the decline of curlew across the landscape at the national level. We will enhance conditions for curlew using best-practise techniques and monitor the response, ensuring we are always evidence lead in our approach. We will help raise awareness of the plight of the curlew among local communities and suggest ways communities and visitors to the area can get involved in their conservation. Importantly, we’ll look to create a legacy and ways to continue working for curlew after the end of the project. Christina Taylor is keen to get stuck in:

“It never ceases to give me a thrill to hear the first curlew of the year, especially knowing how increasingly rare it is to hear them. I feel incredibly privileged to have been given the opportunity to work on this very important project. Over the last few weeks we have been busy setting up the monitoring programme for this year’s breeding season. Thanks to the support of participating farmers and an amazing new team of volunteers we will be carrying out surveys on farms in the project area for the next four years in the hopes of understanding more about the curlew population in the area and the habitat they need to thrive”

The Curlew LIFE project is an incredibly exciting stage in our involvement in curlew conservation and we look forward to developing it over the coming 4 years. All of our project work and other work being carried out by partners across the uplands is contributing to successful curlew conservation. Together we can save this species. It is not too late. But we need to act now to ensure the evocative call of the curlew remains part of our uplands for ever more.

Elisabeth Charman
Senior Conservation Officer, North-East & Cumbria