This World Curlew Day, 21 April, we’d like to thank all the farmers who’ve taken part in the Curlew LIFE project.

With more than 280 farms totalling almost 31,000 hectares in our project areas around the UK, it’s no exaggeration to say that Curlew LIFE is only possible thanks to the farmers who are working with us to help Curlews to breed successfully on their land.

From the uplands to the lowlands, and from sheep farming to beef and dairy, they’re a pretty diverse group of farms in different landscapes, but what these farmers all have in common is a willingness to help Curlews and other wildlife on their land.

 

Farms in our project areas

Northern Ireland:

  • Upland farms on the Antrim Plateau
  • Lowland farms on the lough shore and islands at Lough Erne, Fermanagh

Wales:

  • Upland farms in the Ysbyty Ifan and Hiraethog area in North Wales

England:

  • Upland farms along Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland, northern England

Farmers are also supporting us at the three RSPB nature reserves that are part of Curlew LIFE – for example, with conservation grazing:

  • RSPB Scotland Insh Marshes, Inverness-shire, Scotland
  • RSPB Lough Erne Islands, Fermanagh, Northern Ireland
  • RSPB Geltsdale, Cumbria, northern England

 

Caring for Curlews

The farmers in our project areas have supported Curlew LIFE in a range of ways, depending on the area and farm:

  • Allowing us to carry out monitoring surveys during the breeding season
  • Permitting us to fence nests and carry out radio tagging of birds in some areas
  • Working with us on habitat improvement works like cutting rush and putting in scrapes
  • Adjusting farming operations, such as grazing, stocking densities and the timing of silage cutting, to help create the diverse vegetation that Curlews need and to protect nests and chicks
  • Permitting us to carry out targeted predator control in some areas
  • Taking part in events and site visits
  • Supporting us in our communications about the project

We also worked with one of our farms at Hadrian’s Wall to install bird diverter discs on overhead powerlines, in partnership with Northern Powergrid, to hopefully prevent birds flying into the lines.

 

Kit Acton – upland sheep & beef farm

A man seating on a quad bike holding two lambs, with a green field in the background - Kit Acton, one of the farmers in the Curlew LIFE project area at Hadrian's Wall, northern EnglandOne of the farmers taking part is Kit Acton, whose upland farm is near Bardon Mill, in our Hadrian’s Wall project area. Kit farms hill sheep and suckler cows across 445 hectares, with around 100 hectares in our project.

Curlew LIFE is the first conservation project that Kit has been involved in, but he quickly said yes when approached by the RSPB. His motivation was simple: “Everyone likes Curlews!”

Kit, who studied zoology at university, grew up on the farm and recalls Curlews nesting there throughout his whole lifetime, but noticed that they have decreased on the farm in that time.

He has been managing his land with ground-nesting birds in mind since 2019, supported by one of the government’s payment schemes for farmers in England. (Part of Kit’s farm is in the Countryside Stewardship scheme, under an option called UP2, which is for managing rough grazing land for birds.)

“It means I adjust my stocking rates, and, during the bird breeding season from April to the end of July, I primarily graze with cattle rather than sheep and I keep heavy machinery off,” Kit explained.

“In the areas where we’ve had most of the Curlews nesting, we’ve had some scrapes created through Curlew LIFE. There was a broken drain and, rather than repairing it, we brought water to surface and channelled it through a number of scrapes.”

The works have created areas of soft, wet ground where Curlews and their chicks can forage for food.

Kit has done some topping of rushes outside the nesting season, to create a mixture of habitat for the Curlews, with some advice from the RSPB, and has allowed the Curlew LIFE team to carry out monitoring surveys and to fence nests on his land, which helped to keep predators at bay and gave the eggs a much higher chance of hatching.

Kit also trialled ‘no fence’ cattle collars last year through Curlew LIFE, as a way of controlling where his cattle graze, helping to stop any one area being grazed too much or too little.

“It’s been interesting being part of Curlew LIFE,” he said. “I hope it has helped the Curlews. I’ve learnt a little bit more and the data from the project will be useful when I’m planning for future payment schemes. The evidence of where there are breeding birds will help me get the right areas of the farm into the right options.”

 

Maurice Maguire – lowland dairy farm

A man leaning on a gate with a field and lough in the background - farmer Maurice Maguire, who is part of the Curlew LIFE projectMaurice Maguire’s farm, which sits on the shores of Upper Lough Erne in Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, is very different to Kit’s. This 21-hectare dairy farm near Kilmore is on a lowland delta, complete with its very own island in the lough. Accessible by a causeway, Curlews nest on the island most years. The farm has been in Maurice’s family for 150 years and he takes great pleasure from the wildlife on his land.

“When you grow up in this kind of area, you are close to nature,” Maurice said. “I got involved with Curlew LIFE because I like the idea of protecting wildlife.”

The farm is home to a range of birds – the White-tailed Eagle is perhaps the most spectacular, but he also has nesting Lapwings and Swifts among others. Hares are a common sight.

“Even before this project, the way I was managing my land wasn’t specifically for Curlews but it was perfect for them, keeping the rush cut and the vegetation quite open,” Maurice said.

There are a couple of improved fields on Maurice’s farm, but the land is mainly unimproved wet grassland and fen. The island is particularly popular with Curlews, and through Curlew LIFE we’ve been able to help make this even better habitat for them.

The island had a large area of mature scrub (developing wet woodland) at one end and a treeline running around the back of the island. This was all removed through Curlew LIFE during the winter of 2023-24, along with other patches of shoreline scrub or trees on the mainland. We’ve also been able to help with rush cutting.

“I’m doing what I always did, and that helps the wildlife,” Maurice said.

 

Roger Lloyd – upland sheep & beef farm

A man in a rushy field with a stone wall and upland fields in the background - Roger LLoyd, a farmer taking part in the Curlew LIFE project in Wales.Roger Lloyd’s 97-hectare upland farm near Pentrefoelas in North Wales is home to Welsh Hill Speckled Face sheep and Limousin suckler cows. Roger joined Curlew LIFE at the start of the project, when he was approached by our local team.

“I’ve always liked the Curlew,” Roger said. “They’ve been on our land for years.”

He has worked alongside our project team to carry out habitat works and changes to farm practices.

“We worked together with the project to cut down an area of conifers on our land to prevent shelter for foxes and potential nest sites for predatory birds,” Roger said. “I did have concerns about losing shelter for our livestock, but through the project we were able to work out an alternative.”

He has also made changes to his grazing.

“We have a grazing agreement in place with the project, where a field of ours will be closed from April to July, allowing the grass to grow enough to create cover for the Curlew chicks and provide more feeding opportunities,” he explained.

Learning lessons and adapting is an important part of Curlew LIFE, and Roger worked with us to overcome the odd challenge along the way. One example related to our monitoring methods. Some of the plots allocated to volunteers for monitoring surveys didn’t match farm boundaries, which meant that more than one team of volunteers were accessing Roger’s farm, leading to more disturbance. Thanks to Roger’s feedback, our project team have made some changes to the survey areas for the 2024 season, so that they’re more in line with the farm boundaries, which will hopefully keep disturbance to a minimum this year.

“I’ve been managing the land with Curlew in mind for years, as to me it’s the natural way of doing things,” Roger said. “But through the project I’ve learned about different methods like radio tagging and use of electric fencing around nests. Overall, being involved in the project has been something new for me, and it’s been nice seeing people caring for the species.”

Roger’s advice for other farmers thinking of supporting similar projects is to get involved.

“Take part – you’re never going to know how it’s going to work out, but it’s turned out well for us here on the farm and for the Curlews on site.”

 

Looking ahead

We are currently working on a short film with guidance for farmers on how to help breeding Curlews, including interviews with some of the farmers in our project areas. It will be released in summer 2024 alongside a new advice section for farmers on our website.

With the Curlew LIFE project now in its final year, our project teams and farmers alike have their fingers crossed for the best season yet for Curlew productivity, hopefully reaping the benefits of all the efforts that have gone in during the project.

Despite the busy breeding season ahead, our project teams and colleagues in the RSPB more widely are also working on plans for after Curlew LIFE, exploring funding bids, partnership projects and other options for the future, with farmers as an integral part, as they have been in Curlew LIFE. We’re hugely grateful to them for their support.

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