This is an oft uttered statement by farmers during discussions about the declining number of curlew nesting on their land. Most farmers in the Ysbyty Ifan and Hiraethog area who have curlew nesting on their land have noticed there are fewer pairs than in the past. According to Dion Williams, who farms above Pentrefoelas there used to be upwards of 6 pairs on his farm Hafoty Gwyn when he was a lad but there are now two pairs of curlew nesting there with a third pair nearby. This situation on Dion’s farm reflects what has happened nationally to breeding curlew in Wales – since 1995 there has been a 68% decline. Naturally farmers, together with project staff, scratch heads and ask why this is so. Farmers are aware of the downward trajectory this popular bird species is on and think back over the years to see what may have precipitated this sad situation. Usually, they can’t remember any major changes in farming practice and so they shrug their shoulders and conclude that factors outside their control are responsible.

Whilst we don’t know exactly why breeding curlew are declining so sharply in the uplands of Wales what we do know suggests numerous small incremental changes contribute to curlews not breeding successfully. What we mean by breeding successfully, is to incubate eggs and rear 0.8 chicks to fledgling stage per year. This is what they need to do in order to maintain their population and not continue to slide towards extinction in Wales. So, what do we mean by ‘small, incremental changes’? Here are some.

Less cattle grazing

The trend of farmers no longer keeping beef or hardy cattle due to the economics of cattle rearing means that rough ground and pasture has more rank vegetation growing in it. There is less poaching of ground and opening up of patches of rush. Curlew find rush filled fields with thick, tall growth off-putting for nesting since they can’t see out to watch for predators.

Damp fields and boggy areas drying out

The drive to maximise productivity during uncertain times has resulted in farmers draining damp fields and boggy areas by cleaning old ditches. In earlier years digging ditches received grant support. Climate change is exacerbating the situation so that damp patches and shallow pools or scrapes are now at a premium. Unfortunately, these are exactly what curlew chicks need since they feed on aquatic insects and find wet ground easy to probe with their soft beaks.

Maturing shelterbelts

Previous agricultural policies and subsidies saw many, mainly coniferous shelterbelts being planted. Many farmers invested in these during the later decades of the 20th century and now the mature trees provide ideal cover for predators. Needless to say, the proximity of shelterbelts to curlew breeding sites sounds the death knell for curlew chicks.

More indoor lambing

Modern farming practices include bringing ewes of cross bred sheep into sheds for lambing. This makes the experience more comfortable for farmer and beast leading to increased lamb survival. As a result, there is less need to control the risk of predation from foxes and crows out in the fields and so farmers invest less in this, and any predator control happens over a shorter time frame.

Creep feeding of lambs

It has become common practice to creep feed lambs as a means of weaning them and getting them ready for market. This means that farmers put supplementary feed outdoors. This acts like a magnet for crows which are notorious for eating curlew eggs.

Silage production

The marked increase in nutritional value of silage compared with hay means that farmers cut grass for silage far earlier than they used to and several times during a growing season. Consequently, curlew nests, eggs and chicks in silage fields are decimated when the combine harvester trundles along.

A future blog will explain what farmers can do to try and reverse the decline in curlew nesting on their land in the uplands of Wales.

Sian Shakespear
Ysbyty Ifan and Hiraethog – Community Engagement Officer