Kill the foxes and the curlews will thrive. That’s the conclusion of gamekeepers at an Irish Grouse Conservatiom Trust project in Northern Ireland.
Curlews are a rare sight in Northern Ireland. Loss of habitat has put them in decline for decades. They came off the quarry list in the province in 2011. Now, thanks to the work of gamekeepers and shooters, the number of chicks is increasing.
In the Glenwherry area of the Antrim Plateau, a shoot is producing spectacular breeding results. The number of chicks successfully fledged almost doubled between 2021 and 2022.
Keepers recorded 69 fledged curlew chicks in Glenwherry in 2022, building on 2021’s 28 chicks, which was itself a record.
Gamekeeper Merlin Becker says in 2022 there was an average of four chicks per brood. He says: “That number is unheard of in the island of Ireland. That does not happen. It’s not rocket science. We’re very good at fox control and crow control. I have three very good men underneath me and one man also doing crow control. It’s boots on the ground really from grassroots that are getting those results.”
In Northern Ireland, as in the rest of the UK, it is the work of the gamekeepers and shooters that protects wildlife. The main ways they do it are to look after the birds’ habitat and control their predators.
Gary McCartney of the Countryside Alliance says this is vital work. He says gamekeepers such as Merlin strike a balance. He says: “The work is to help all wildlife flourish. Nobody wants to see the end of any of the predators, but we just want to bring them into check and give the other wildlife the opportunity to thrive.”
Merlin says the number one factor of the success is predator control.
He says: “Without predator control you’d probably get 10% of the wildlife that we have now if you’re lucky. It’s a very important element to it all.
“I like to explain predator control as a little evil for a greater good. On the moors in Northern Ireland, vulnerable species like curlews need the most protection. Predators such as foxes, rats and crows are their biggest threat.”
Merlin says it’s not a conversation many people are having.
He says: “Predation is contentious. You’re controlling one animal to protect another and you’re sort of acting as God by stepping in. But without our intervention and without the hand of man, we wouldn’t be able to deliver all these environmental benefits for all the species that we love: curlew, grouse, golden plover, snipe and lapwing.”
Grouse are also thriving on the moors thanks to the work of gamekeepers. Ian Glendinning of the Irish Grouse Conservation Trust (IGCT) says the conservation work on managed moors helps many other endangered species too. He says there is a big population of a range of birds and hares. He says: “It shows when the management is increased, and the predators are controlled then it benefits the whole balance.”
Gamekeepers point to controlled burning as an essential tool for creating habitats for wildlife. Merlin says that the combination of muirburn and predator control brings the maximum benefit for the wildlife of the moors, including sheep and hares. He says: “We have 60% of Northern Ireland’s grouse population on one small hill. It’s around 3,000 acres here, with two breeding pairs of curlew on the moor that is owned by CAFRE and the Northern Ireland Department of Agriculture.”
The wider curlew project is called Curlew LIFE, a larger area of approximately 20,000 acres. Approximately 23% of Northern Ireland’s curlew reside across the whole project area, which is run by the RSPB. The IGCT is contracted to do the predator control there.
Gamekeepers have transformed the wildlife on these moors. Without their work it may be a different story.
Gary says the success is down to the fact that the ground is managed. He says: “We have such experienced and knowledgeable gamekeepers such as Merlin. It’s only through his and others’ efforts that the balance is struck here. Curlew and other wildlife can flourish because there is a balance through predator control. The work here is fantastic.”
Ian says that being a gamekeeper is a calling: “There’s no nine-to-five in achieving this. There’s a big commitment and effort that’s put in by the gamekeepers and the Irish Grouse Conservation Trust. That work has to be done. Armchair gamekeeping doesn’t work.”
Conservation industry bodies such as the RSPB are currently politically opposed to predator control. Merlin says that the RSPB has asked how long it would take for wildlife to be wiped out if there were no predator control. He says: “I would say in 12 months there wouldn’t be a single curlew chick left if we stopped the predator control in this area here. Hares would probably hang on for three years. In less than five years’ time, there would be absolutely nothing because of the level of predation pressure.”
He says he’s seen the same pressure in England, Scotland, and Wales too: “The level of foxes and predators in the countryside is huge.”
Gamekeepers and shooters know that the conservation industry campaigns against their work, but they are determined to continue their efforts to help birds such as the curlew.