How grouseshooting is saving curlews

It’s a sunny spring day on the North York Moors and there’s a light breeze. We’ve managed to find a spot where we’re treated to curlew calls in nature’s equivalent of surround sound.

Curlew ambassador John Cavana scans the heather around us with binoculars in between reeling out facts about the bird. We’re not sure which call to follow. 

It is this time of year, when the birds are nesting, or at least thinking about it, they’re at their most elusive. How ironic then, that at the same time conservationists have them in the spotlight for World Curlew Day.

John Cavana, at home on the North York Moors

“They share incubation,” says John. “The male will do his turn, incubating the eggs while she’s away feeding. It’s not a species where the male has to take all the food back to the nest to feed the female. They’ll do it in shifts.

“The chicks are what is called precocial – once they’ve hatched they can feed themselves. They can’t fly. They haven’t learnt the art of escape and evasion, so the parents like to watch them.

“If you ever see them on a wall or a fence, it means there’s chicks somewhere. You’ll never see them sitting on a wall or a fence if there are no chicks about… so learning their behaviour and body language is one of the ways [to help them].”

That last point sums up John’s attitude to reversing the curlew’s decline in the UK. Without understanding their needs, conservation projects are likely to fail, regardless how much money is poured into them.

A curlew on the march

Take one: it’s one of the RSPB’s many disastrous attempts at living up to its name. It is the reserve at Lake Vyrnwy in Wales. When taking over the reserve in the 1980s, the bird charity boasted there were many breeding curlews. The reason, as any gamekeeper can tell you, is because the moors had been managed for grouse shoots for years, with heather burning and predator control as top priorities. After scrapping gamekeeping practices, the RSPB saw curlew numbers at Lake Vyrnwy shrink into oblivion. 

Nearly a quarter of all Eurasian curlews from north-west Europe, across Russia and south to North Africa, are in the UK. Most of them live or breed on grousemoors. The RSPB must hate that fact but, instead of admitting its mistakes, the charity has doubled-down with its (largely) anti-predator control policies in an effort to save face.

In sticking to its guns, the RSPB puts curlews and other groundnesting birds that benefit from well-managed moors a step closer to localised extinction. 

It marked World Curlew Day 2021 not by admitting its mistakes, but touting an “ambitious new project”. Curlew in Crisis will see £3.8 million more pumped into the charity’s reserves, including the Geltsdale disaster area. Geltsdale was a grousemoor with plenty of birdlife, including hen harriers, black grouse and curlew, until RSPB took over and numbers plummeted to nationwide lows. 

Curlew-free: Lake Vyrnwy

Back on the North York Moors, we decide to return to the car and drive deeper into moorland. Seconds later, a curlew appears from nowhere just a few yards off the dirt track we’re on. It takes flight from behind a tuft of heather we had walked past minutes earlier but not seen anything. It is easy to apply mysterious qualities to this bird, which may explain legends such as St Beuno, saved by a curlew, or the magical 1953 book The Silver Curlew by Eleanor Farjeon.

Our bird flies a short distance then wanders around pecking for food.

“We need to be mindful of what’s up here,” says John. “It isn’t just grouse. The biodiversity is fantastic.

“World Curlew Day is to raise awareness about the curlew… It’s an iconic species. Some of the national parks are using it on their signs. You see them on people’s chimney pots – they’ve got a cutout of a curlew. It’s a lovely species, a fantastic bird. It’s under threat, probably our most threatened species. We’re fortunate enough now that people have realised we need to do something for the curlew.

“It’s in rapid decline. We can do something about it. It’s not too late.”

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