World Curlew Day 2020

April 21, 2020

Today is World Curlew Day, a celebration of the curlews, a group of nine shorebird species in the genus Numenius which are widely distributed around the world. It is also a day to raise awareness of their plight, as most of these species are in trouble. One of them - the Eskimo curlew, is probably extinct and another - the Slender-billed curlew, critically endangered with the last confirmed sighting in 2004. Two species breed in the UK, the Eurasian whimbrel and the Eurasian curlew, and both are red listed in this country as having the highest conservation priority. This post is primarily about the Eurasian curlew, which has suffered alarming declines across the country in recent years, especially in Ireland, Wales and the south of England. With the UK hosting around a quarter of the world's breeding population it is especially urgent that curlews receive the protection they need to survive. As a bird which I have only become familiar with in the past year or so, it is heartbreaking to think that it could eventually disappear from this country if current trends are not reversed. Read on to find out more about the curlew's plight and what you can do to help!

The issues that impinge upon this bird of meadow and moor are huge, no less than an ever-growing human population and the transformation of the Earth's atmosphere. We will have to dig deep into our reserves of compassion for wild things to secure their future. And curlews can give us nothing in return but songs of the soul and a glimpse of wildness.
 Mary Colwell, Curlew Moon

I was inspired to write this post after finishing Mary Colwell's outstanding book Curlew MoonA moving tribute to the curlew, the book follows Mary as she undertakes a 500 mile walk across Ireland and the UK in order to see how they are faring, what threats they face, and the people trying to save them - as well as raising money for curlew conservation and increasing awareness along the way. I would highly recommend it, both as an homage to the curlew, and more broadly as an exploration of the value we place on the natural world in modern society. Mary also contributed to a moving piece on the curlew in the recent Red Sixty Seven, a lovingly crafted book which combines original artwork and words to celebrate our 67 Red Listed bird species. 

With the UK being described as one of the most 'nature-depleted' countries on the planet, our relationship with nature must change if alarming declines in our wildlife are to be reversed.  As with many species in this country, the curlew is being squeezed out of existence through a combination of habitat destruction, changing land-use, climate change and agricultural intensification. As the book details at length, though a fairly inoffensive bird in themselves, curlews are caught up in conservation issues which are highly complex and controversial. 

Curlew numbers swell outside of the breeding season, with birds from other parts of Europe - an estimated 140,000 - joining our resident birds along our coastlines and estuaries for the winter months. This is how I have known the curlew, as a bird of the peripheries. The first time I heard one was as a long-term volunteer on Skokholm Island last autumn. There were usually a number of them roosting on the island, and lying in bed in the early morning I would hear their cries "curlee...curlee..." as they flew off to the mainland for the day. Their calls are hauntingly beautiful, and if you have never heard one calling then you should listen to them right now HERE.  Walking around the island I would always catch a faraway glimpse of them, but could never get very close before they would spook and fly off.

The other times I have seen them, in Bangor harbour and at the seafronts in Ardrossan and Troon in North Aryshire, they were patrolling the shoreline and methodically probing the wet sand and mud for food. I also hope to see them as a summer bird, as a breeding bird, and I am lucky in that I can still do that if I travel to the right places. But for how long? Whilst we still have an estimated 66,000 breeding pairs, numbers dropped by 48% from 1995 to 2015, which is a 13.5% loss of the whole European population. Although in the uplands of England and Scotland breeding numbers are still high, in Ireland, Wales and southern England the situation is dire.

The wildlife we exist alongside is deeply connected to our history and culture, and each species we lose is a tragic loss for us and for future generations who will never get to experience them. Hope is not lost though, and there are some amazing people out there trying to save curlews, with lots of dedicated local conservation organisations working to prevent further declines. Organisations such as Curlew Country based in the Shropshire Hills and Welsh Marches, Curlew Forum in southern and lowland Britain, The NPWS Curlew Conservation Programme in Ireland and others. Curlew Action was set up in 2018 on the back of Mary Colwells' work to bring people together in order to develop serious and urgent action plans to rescue the curlew. She also instigated the creation of World Curlew Day on the 21st of April, to celebrate and raise awareness for curlews worldwide. 

Our goal is to support and develop cooperation with farmers and land managers by promoting careful monitoring and research, sharing of knowledge and experience, raising awareness, offering advice, and securing funding to implement effective conservation measures.

Curlew Action

How can you help?

Spread the word about curlews, it is easier to protect and save a species when more people know and cherish them. Another great way to contribute is to make a donation, however small, to some of the organisations working tirelessly for the curlew. You can donate to Curlew Action to help fund their projects, including for a Curlew Fieldworkers Toolkit. You can also donate to local conservation organisations such as Curlew Country who are doing such important work on the ground to try ensure that curlews breed successfully. You could also do more hands on work for curlew conservation, with Curlew Country needing volunteers for surveying work, nest finding and office admin.

Positive partnerships between land managers, conservationists and communities and a pragmatic approach will be the methodology for achieving the common goal of keeping a viable curlew population in lowland UK.

Amanda Perkins,
Curlew Country, Project Manager

Further reference

Apart from reading the excellent Curlew Moon, the Wader Tales blog has a huge amount of information on the research and conservation of curlews as well as our other wader species. Curlew Action and the websites for some of the curlew conservation groups such as Curlew Country or  Curlew Forum regularly post the latest news and updates.

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