As the Curlews return to their breeding grounds, we look back over a winter of getting ready for them, with Adrian Samuels, assistant warden at RSPB Scotland Insh Marshes nature reserve…

I have been at RSPB Scotland Insh Marshes for two years now, but I only started working on Curlew LIFE in May 2023 and around half of my time is dedicated to the project. In the breeding season I do a lot of the monitoring of nests and chicks and avian predators, but in the winter we do a lot of other work that you may not necessarily think of so I thought I’d spend this blog talking about some of that from this last winter.

In August we do what is called topping, the cutting of vegetation so that stays short for the breeding season. We are trying to replicate grazing on areas of the marsh where it’s difficult to get animals to graze or for the particular vegetation to be grazed by the animals that are there.

We also cut down thick rushes that are not generally grazed. To do this we attach a large machine (a topper!) to the back of a tractor. This machine is basically a big rotating drum with large sharp heavy objects inside. As it spins the large sharp objects cut the vegetation. For Curlew we try to cut about 70% of the vegetation, leaving islands of tall grasses in a mosaic.

 

We also cut for Lapwing but they like a lot less tall vegetation so we cut about 90% in those areas. The Curlew like more of a mixture, hence we leave more long.  So basically you are driving a tractor around the marsh avoiding very wet areas as you don’t want to do what is known as “bogging” the tractor, where it has to be pulled out of the marsh by another non-bogged tractor owned by a local helpful farmer.

You have to keep listening to the engine, as if the vegetation gets too thick it can stall the topper and tractor. To avoid this you have to raise the topper up when it starts to struggle, so it has less to cut, and you lower it back down after you have got through the tricky bit.

The tractor has a Bluetooth audio system that can connect to my phone and it surprised me how much drum ‘n’ bass music added to the experience. I have been occasionally followed around by two to four Red Kites, and once I noticed I was being watched by a circling White-tailed Eagle. It’s going to be satisfying to monitor Curlew nests in areas where I myself have topped.

We have two herds of Konik ponies that we use to graze the softer areas that cattle or sheep might not get to. To help them get around these parts of the marsh, we have been making some new bridges in the last few months. Giving them more crossing points will also help to reduce the amount of trampling in any one area.

These bridges are out in the middle of the marsh and over ditches, so we decided we would pull tools and materials out there in a rowing boat, thereby avoiding churning up the ground with a quad bike. This has proved to be great fun as well as convenient. We would load up the boat and then pull it along the ditch with ropes. One person pulls it along from the front (bow) while another pulls the rear (stern) to steer it and keep it floating along the centre of the ditch.

Depending on the water level on the marsh when we reached other bridges we would float it around the side, heave it up and over the bridge, or use round posts to roll the boat along the ground like they did with the pyramids (apparently).

One of the days we chose to go out and do this happened to be quite cold and it was snowing. It must be one of my favourite days at Insh Marshes. We had to pull the boat along frozen ditches like an ice breaker while it was snowing. Once we got to the bridge where, in this case, we were adding ramps to help the ponies get onto the bridge, one of our staff members, Theo, did a snow angel on the bridge. It’s surprising how warm you can feel doing physical work out in freezing temperatures.

We’ve also taken apart old bridges that are no longer needed. We did one during a volunteer work party in quite flooded conditions. We all sat on a new bridge nearby for lunch, thereby recreating the photo of the New York workers having lunch on a steel girder.

We have also had to fix quite a few fences that were pushed over by debris in floods. We have fences to allow us to control our grazing schemes accurately over the compartments of the marsh using the various stock we have grazing – cattle, ponies and sheep. We had a very large flood in October and many people could not remember the water being so high in the last ten years or so.

The Tromie River managed to break a post and wire fence entirely and drag part of it across the field next to it. It also left lots of debris against another part of the same fence and that fence is now at a bit of an angle. The debris just comes down the river and slowly builds up at fences it can’t go through, causing more and more weight on the fence, pushing it over, or breaking it at weak points where the wire has been bent round itself. When we rebuilt the Tromie fence we added in diagonal cross posts that we hoped would bolster the fence posts and keep it strong and upright in a flood, but since then we have had a further flood and it was pulled over again.

We also had a new fence built to replace an old one that was not following the reserve boundary quite correctly and was also on top of an embankment, providing quite good avian predator perches. Hopefully not having the new fence on the embankment will give the avian predators less advantage over the Lapwing and Curlew that choose to nest near it.

Lastly, I have been prepping a Curlew knowledge exchange event. We are inviting farmers and other landowners to join us on a coach trip to visit nearby farms that have several pairs of breeding Curlew, where we can talk about what has been done, or not, to allow this. Then we will stop at Insh Marshes for lunch and talk about what we do on the marsh. We are hoping this will encourage discussion around helping Curlew and the issues that arise for them. Maybe we can all learn from each other about what we can do to help Curlews.