Happy World Curlew Day 2023!
As we join with bird lovers across the globe in celebrating this wonderful species on their international awareness day, we look back over the work we’ve been doing on the ground to create Curlew heaven at our five project sites around the UK. We also look ahead to what we’ll be doing to help these struggling birds fledge even more chicks in 2023.
We’re now just over halfway through our four-year Curlew LIFE project, so there’s a lot to look back on and celebrate, and much hard work ahead of us as we move towards our goal of stabilising populations of Curlew at our five sites.
The sites are all quite different, and that’s proving to be one of the strengths of the project – having the opportunity to try different approaches to helping Curlew in particular landscapes, each with their individual challenges. Ranging from islands in one of the UK’s largest lakes to farm fields and uplands, both on RSPB reserves and private land, they are spread across the UK, with sites in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Read more about our sites >
The Curlew LIFE year is a game of two halves, with habitat improvements at our project sites during the winter, while the birds are on the coasts, to ensure that it’s in good condition for them when they return in the spring. And then, during the breeding season, a range of actions to protect their nests and chicks from potential predators while they’re on our sites, along with comprehensive monitoring to tell us whether they’ve successfully fledged chicks. Here’s a flavour of what we’ve been doing and what’s planned for this breeding season.
Winter works – creating Curlew heaven
Curlews are fussy! They like an open landscape, where they can see predators approaching. They don’t tend to nest too close to trees or scrub, where predators can hide. But they also need a mix of vegetation – some areas with tall vegetation where they can hide their nests, and then areas with less dense vegetation where they and their chicks can forage for food. They also like wet ground – being waders, they feed in soft mud for worms and other tasty morsels.
That’s quite a shopping list for our teams to deliver, and the improvement works have been tailored for each site.
We’ve been using a range of breeds of cattle to graze selected areas, where they’ve done a fantastic job of keeping the vegetation density at the right level. They also break up the sward with their weight and their hooves, creating the right patchwork of habitat for nesting and raising young chicks.
The trick is not to overgraze any given area, though, so at some sites we’ve used technology to control where the cattle go. The cattle wear collars that produce sounds and vibrations to encourage them to stay in areas we map out by computer. It’s particularly helpful in the open landscapes of our sites, where it wouldn’t be practical to have physical fences that would need to be moved around regularly. By removing linear features it can also make it harder for potential predators to navigate the landscape. On our islands reserve in Northern Ireland’s Lough Erne, our team has the extra challenge of moving livestock from island to island on a custom-built boat so that each area gets the right level of grazing.
We’ve been cutting back dense areas of rush on several of our sites, as well as removing scrub. It’s not always straightforward, especially on boggy areas. At a few of our sites, to stop the cutting machinery sinking into the wet ground, our contractors have used specially adapted tractors fitted with ‘Soucy tracks’ instead of normal wheels – a bit like the tracks on a military tank.
We’ve worked with farmers and landowners to dig shallow pools at several sites, which are the equivalent of Curlew cafes! Soft, wet ground around the edges is particularly helpful for the chicks, while their beaks are still developing. Having more scrapes means the chicks don’t have to travel as far to find food, which helps reduce their exposure to predators.
Blocking and reprofiling drains
It’s not been easy in the past for farmers to make a living from boggy land. Putting in drains was a common way to manage water levels and make the land more suitable for different types of farming. We’ve been working with the farmers and landowners at our off-reserve project sites to block and change drains so that areas can be rewetted, helping Curlew as well as other species. Curlew in Wales are now also reaping the benefits of peatland restoration that began before our project, in 2017, which was supported by RSPB Cymru. The work was on one of the farms that’s now part of our project area and Curlew returned there to breed in 2021 for the first time in decades.
The team at RSPB Insh Marshes has improved about 15 hectares of land where the Curlew like to feed. By spreading lime on semi-improved grass fields, we hope to see an increase in the numbers of worms for the adults and their chicks to eat.
Permanent predator exclusion fencing
Curlew nests and chicks are very vulnerable to ground predators like foxes. Our Welsh site is a great example of where we’ve installed permanent electric fencing around two large areas that are popular breeding sites for Curlew, to keep these predators out. The second fence went in this past winter giving us a total length of 5km. We’ve also put in permanent fencing at our islands reserve in Northern Ireland.
With the 2023 breeding season now well underway, our teams will be using a range of tools and techniques to help the Curlew while they’re nesting and raising their chicks.
Temporary nest fences
We use temporary electric fences to protect a selection of individual nests from ground predators until the chicks hatch. It’s a technique we’ve used at several sites before, and this year we’re expanding it for the first time to RSPB Geltsdale and on farm fields along Hadrian’s Wall.
Our teams installing the fences have to work quickly to minimise disturbance, aiming to get the fences up and activated within half an hour. They then monitor the nests and remove the fences after the chicks hatch, as they’re mobile quickly and range quite a distance on the hunt for food.
The abundance of many predators has grown in the UK over the past few decades. Whilst further research is required to understand why the UK has such high densities of predators, due to the conservation imperative for Curlew, some of our project sites carry out targeted seasonal control of foxes and crows, the main predators of Curlew eggs and chicks. This is delivered in combination with habitat management and non-lethal measures such as fencing. All lethal control is closely monitored and follows legal, best-practice, high welfare and evidence-based methods.
Curlew chicks forage on the ground for five weeks until they can fly. It’s very challenging for our teams to establish how many chicks make it to fledging, how they use the territory, and what happened to those that didn’t fledge. To add to our normal monitoring, we use radio tagging at some of our sites, where we fit young chicks with a transmitter. We can then follow their movements. The transmitter falls off naturally after a period of time. For chicks that don’t survive, the tag can help us find their remains and hopefully establish what caused their death.
It’s crucial for us to know whether the actions we take for Curlew are resulting in more chicks fledging successfully. And that boils down to a lot of time out on the ground, monitoring pairs and broods. It’s a time of early mornings and long days for our project teams. More than seventy volunteers from local communities are helping with monitoring at three of our sites (Hadrian’s Wall, RSPB Insh Marshes and in North Wales), along with a residential volunteer on the RSPB Geltsdale reserve. With such large areas to cover, it’d be impossible without their help. It’s a great way for the volunteers to learn new skills and they can also help spread the word in their communities, building support for their local Curlews.
All the data that the teams collect will be analysed by the RSPB’s scientists and ecologists, helping to spot trends and establish how well the Curlew are faring through our project. Our data also adds to the national picture and could potentially guide future actions beyond the life of our project.
With farmers and landowners, volunteers and RSPB staff all working together to help the Curlew, our teams across the UK are feeling hopeful for a successful breeding season this year.
About World Curlew Day
World Curlew Day is an international day to celebrate the Curlew, raise awareness about the challenges the species facing and highlight how people from different walks of life can help. The first World Curlew Day was instigated in 2017 by Mary Colwell – author, producer, driving force behind the new Natural History GCSE and founder of Curlew Action.