Since we are busy putting so much time, money, and effort into saving breeding curlew in key areas of the UK, it’s good to consider why the RSPB is doing this, with the support of EU LIFE and several other organisations. After all, it is one species, from amongst far too many, which are facing the risk of extinction from the UK, and through that, from the planet. It’s a question which, from time-to-time, pops into the heads of project staff, especially at the end of a long and arduous breeding season which has taken both a heavy physical and emotional toll. Frantically following the trials and tribulations of curlew chicks and finding that some disappear before they fledge, probably as a result of predation, doesn’t make for a happy state of mind!

The first and oft quoted reason for doing our utmost for breeding curlew is simply to save its evocative and soul-wrenching call from disappearing from our moors, and thereby from our coasts. For those of us who have relished its bubbling call whilst out in our remoter landscapes losing this would be unconscionable. One of our volunteers, Keegan, thought a lot about why he was helping to survey curlew and stated: “We only begin to care about a species if it’s charismatic, or about to go extinct… our care is often focused on what brings us gain, warm feelings, or even an opportunity to virtue signal.”

There are overwhelming objective and scientific reasons why we shouldn’t allow this of many bird species to vanish.  Once again Keegan expresses this elegantly “….we know that diverse ecosystems are more resilient since many organisms together perform vital functions in the environment. If the earth were a spaceship and we started randomly cutting wires labelled ‘life support’ it would only be a matter of time before our own survival is in jeopardy. The more species we lose, the more brittle the systems become. Curlews in fact are a canary in the coal mine of a dilapidating system.”

Indeed, the Wildlife and Countryside Link has come to a similar conclusion by identifying the Eurasian Curlew as one of the ‘10 species that can help save the world’* So what do they mean when they make such a proposition? Firstly, saving Curlew means we are benefitting a range of landscapes from mudflat to moorland, upland rough grassland to coastal wet grassland and from valley bottom meadow to estuary.

A primary action of ours in the CurlewLIFE project is to restore peatlands, used by curlew for breeding, by blocking ditches, reprofiling hags and creating pools and scrapes. Curlews respond well to such work because chicks find it easy to probe the soft ground with their short, soft beaks, and thrive on the aquatic insects which should be more abundant in restored areas, and mammalian predators probably find it more difficult to move around these boggy landscapes and. Restoring wetlands in this way is also key to increasing the amount of carbon locked away in the soil, thus stopping it from being released to the atmosphere and contributing to climate change. Flooding down river is also less likely to happen since the main plant of bogs, sphagnum moss, is the ultimate water storage system. Countless other species find soggy wetlands conducive such as specialist bog plants, butterflies, and dragonflies and so wetland habitats in a good condition, brim with wildlife.

Curlew also nest in valley bottom meadows managed by farmers to produce silage. By delaying the cutting of silage in fields specifically used by curlew until after the chicks have fledged, not only do more curlew pairs successfully produce chicks but other ground nesting birds such as lapwing breed successfully. Meadow plants have time to flower and the meadow buzzes with insects feeding on the grasses and wildflowers.

Another habitat which curlews use for breeding are rushy fields and CurlewLIFE is acting in these by cutting the rushes and encouraging farmers to graze the fields with cattle so that the rushes are less dense and of varying height, both of which curlew seem to prefer to nest in. In turn, the cow dung attracts insects which then bring in swallows.

Wherever curlews choose to nest they are under constant threat of predation and so a lot of effort goes into installing fences to keep would be predators at bay. Other birds such as lapwing, snipe and teal in addition to hares enjoy the protection afforded by permanent predator-proof fences.

this effort to ensure breeding curlews produce as many chicks as possible means that more curlews spend the autumn and winter on our estuaries and mudflats thus halting the decline in overwintering curlews. Not only does their bubbling call liven up a winter walk along the coast but their probing bills help stabilise the mudflats thus ensuring carbon is also captured here too. Increasingly, we are trying to manage the way the sea interacts with the coast so that certain areas are left to be flooded which creates invertebrate rich grasslands ideal for foraging curlews.

Although many of us working on the CurlewLIFE project can feel that our work is very altruistic with a degree of sacrifice our volunteer Keegan takes a different view: “If you are like me and find it hard to care about an obscure bird…., perhaps you may find that helping to protect them is in effect a selfish act of survival.”

* https://www.wcl.org.uk/assets/uploads/img/files/10_species_that_can_help_save_the_world_FINAL_1.pdf

 

 

 

 

 

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