Iconic curlew evicted from our changing countryside

Having grown up on a council estate with tiny gardens and a father who thought birds were best eaten, it wasn’t until I had my own family that I started walking in the countryside and watching birds.

It was only recently though, having moved to Norfolk, that I had the pleasure of seeing a pair of curlews. I wondered how I could have missed this enchanting bird in the past.

I wanted to find out more about curlews and what better way than to read a nature memoir! Unlike me, nature writer and campaigner Mary Colwell is no stranger to the curlew call, nor why they may be hard to see.

Mary Colwell walks 500 miles to raise awareness on curlews

In her book Curlew Moon, Mary recounts her 500-mile trek from West Ireland to East Anglia to raise awareness of the drastic decline of this much-loved ground-nesting bird and to raise money for its conservation. Mary takes to the fields with nature wardens and bird enthusiasts in search of the lone curlew, or hope upon hope, a breeding pair, whose calls take them back to happier times when wildlife thrived in our rural landscapes. She meets people who share their memories of delightful encounters but also lament this iconic bird’s decline in dwindling rural habitat.

Through a blend of personal experience, folklore and poetry extracts, and conservation stories, Mary charts how the curlew, once abundant in the UK countryside, is heading towards extinction. Seen close-up through Mary’s lyrical writing, this large and rather plain wading bird is anything but dull. Named after a new moon due to its curved bill, the curlew’s “piercing, soul-aching cry – ‘curlee, curlee’” can be heard in flight as this elegant bird sweeps across windswept mud flats after digging for food.

Winter migrants boost UK curlew numbers and give false impression

In winter, Mary tells us, curlew populations in the UK and Ireland can reach 150,000, boosted by migrants from colder climates. But in spring, the reality becomes clear when migrants return to their breeding grounds and resident birds are scattered thinly across the country. Feeding along the coast in winter, curlews head inland to breed in spring, nesting in scrapes in the ground on moors, peat bogs, pastures and meadows.

Mary’s journey follows the curlew’s mixed fortunes across changing habitat from drained and depleted peat bogs in Ireland to pine-clad forests and sheep-clad hills in Wales and Shropshire, to heather moorland in Staffordshire and The Peak District, and finally to flat farmland in Norfolk.

Curlew lose out as peat bog habitat in Ireland disappears

In Ireland, Mary meets local people saddened by the loss of the curlew. Due to changes in farming practices, peat bogs originally cut by hand are now being sliced up by huge machines at an alarming rate. Peat turves supply power stations and homes with an unsustainable and ‘dirty’ energy source. In County Leitrim Mary meets John, National Parks & Wildlife Service Ranger, who says South Leitrim used to be a curlew hot spot until turf cutting and forestry devastated their habitat.

Intensive agriculture and forestry reduce curlew habitat in Wales

In Wales, Mary tells us there were 2000 breeding curlew pairs in 1994 and now there are less than 400. Intensive agriculture, forestry, predation and sheep have all taken their toll. Sheep don’t only trample nests and over-graze – they’ve been found to eat eggs and chicks. In upland Wales, Mary says, wind farms can be problematic because ground-nesting birds keep at least 800 metres away from a turbine.

Cutting silage in Spring destroys curlew nests and chicks 

In Shropshire, cutting silage in late April instead of later in the year collides with the curlew nesting season. But surprisingly, Mary found a more positive story on the grouse moors. More commonly known for creating a habitat that favours a single species targeted in blood sports, the moors are also popular with curlew. She met a grouse moor owner in Wensleydale where she recalls: “never before had I heard so many curlews bubbling and calling their name.”

Curlews find favourable nesting habitat on grouse moors

When I reviewed Mark Avery’s book Inglorious: Conflict in the Uplands, I learned about the destructive impacts of the driven grouse shooting industry on peat bogs and raptors, especially hen harriers. I was surprised to learn that Mary found more curlews on the grouse moors than any other habitat she visited. Where birds of prey are illegally persecuted on grouse moors, curlews are beneficiaries of the control of foxes, stoats, weasels and crows that eat red grouse as well as curlew eggs and chicks. Curlews also benefit from the heather habitat and the absence of trees on grouse moors.

Although she is very much a conservationist and not a shooting supporter, Mary is concerned that if grouse shooting is banned and heather moorland is replaced by forestry or sheep grazing, curlew will lose out. We certainly need to stop labelling some animals as ‘vermin’ to be exterminated, and this even includes mountain hare and deer on grouse moors. But after reading Mary’s book, I had to admit that balancing the needs of people and nature is more complicated than it first seems.

Optimism and hope for curlew recovery  

In Belper, Derbyshire, Mary meets Ashley, a washing machine engineer with a passion for birds who shares his home and his local curlew sighting spots. Ashley’s enthusiasm and optimism for a curlew recovery, despite the sombre reality, reflect how much nature means to us in our everyday life. We don’t have to be a conservation scientist or nature warden or even live in the countryside to care about what happens to our wildlife.

In Curlew Moon, Mary takes us on a journey, weaving curlew ecology and behaviour, changes in agricultural practices, predation problems, and conservation stories to explain the red-listed curlew’s plight. But Curlew Moon is much more than a natural history book and conservation review. In showing the curlew’s cultural significance and revealing her own adoration, we too find ourselves connected to this unassuming bird. We want to fight for this marginalised wader caught up in society’s general dismissal of nature.

You might like to read this NHBS interview with Mary Colwell where she talks about her reasons for writing the book and choosing a style that blends natural history with the arts. Mary’s website Curlew Media explains more about her campaigns.

Want to find out more about curlew conservation?
Curlew Country is a conservation project in the Shropshire hills and Welsh borders. The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust are running Project Curlew, a headstarting programme to release captive-raised chicks into the wild in the Severn Vale, Gloucestershire. Find out how you can help save the enchanting curlew.

Image credit: Eurasian Curlew by Andreas Trepte on Wikimedia [CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)] Note: image has been cropped for use here