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CRP fact-finding mission to northern England

Updated: Dec 23, 2021

Russ and Mary write:

The Curlew Recovery Partnership (CRP) has recently launched its work programme (click here) and is now gearing up to support and deliver on-the-ground training, research, and field trials in the coming months. To do this effectively, we need to understand the constraints, challenges and opportunities facing those working on the frontline of Curlew conservation, in all parts of the country. To that end, we took the opportunity last week to visit a series of Curlew sites and enthusiasts in northern England, which is the heartland of England’s remaining Curlew population.

Tuesday 07 Dec

After a long train and car journey north, we arrived in the Lower Derwent Valley National Nature Reserve (NNR) in the early afternoon. Our arrival coincided with the tail end of Storm Barra, and the biting cold wind and rain contrasted with the warm welcome from reserve manager, Craig Ralston. This year, Craig and his team counted at least 55 Curlew pairs on the NNR, with another 15 or so possibly breeding, and an additional 11 pairs in and around the valley outside the NNR area. The overall picture in recent years appears to indicate a stable Curlew population on the NNR. A total of 21 fledged young were counted at the end of this season, which translates to a minimum productivity of 0.38 chicks per pair, higher than almost all lowland colonies in southern England. Targeted habitat management combined with mitigation measures to reduce loss of eggs and chicks to predation and hay cropping appears to be working, although Craig expressed concern at recent increases in recreational disturbance, in part due to a marked increase in the number of dog-walkers visiting the site post-COVID. We discussed options for future projects under the developing Defra Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme, as well as the possibility of postgraduate research projects in partnership with nearby York University. Before we left, we braved the hostile weather and visited part of the site to see one of the extensive hay meadows; the large scale of the meadow favoured by breeding Curlews was striking, and a reminder of how much these birds depend on wide open landscapes.

A view over part of the Lower Derwent Valley NNR

Wednesday 08 Dec

After an overnight stay near York centre, we headed over to the nearby university to visit Prof David Hill CBE, Chairman of both the Environment Bank and the Northern Upland Chain Local Nature Partnership (he also somehow finds time to be Chairman of Plantlife International and a Board Trustee of the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation!). The aim of this meeting was to discuss options for corporate financing of Curlew recovery, either through development of ‘habitat banks’ comprising species-rich grasslands (especially if these could be targeted at known Curlew breeding areas) or a more Curlew-specific approach that could form part of a blended finance model under future ELM Local Nature Recovery and Landscape Recovery programmes. Although a discussion about ‘Curlew bonds’ might seem rather distant from frontline activity, there is no doubt that in the current climate there are new opportunities for conservation funding, and the iconic status of Curlew as an indicator species for healthy managed habitats means it is well placed to benefit from these opportunities.

We then transferred to a cosy local pub to meet with Dr Andreas Heinemeyer, who is leading a major research programme on the management and ecosystem services associated with upland and heather-dominated blanket bog (called Peatland-ES-UK). We were interested to find out how current and potential future changes to heather burning policy might impact breeding Curlews and other waders, given a significant proportion of the UK Curlew breeding population uses this habitat. It was great to get detailed scientific insights into the pros and cons of different management methods, including rewetting, cutting, and burning, and the implications for moorland species and habitats. Upland management can be a controversial topic, and it is vital that as CRP Chair and Manager we are equipped with the most up-to-date science to inform our response to questions on this issue and to get the best outcomes for Curlews.

After lunch we headed to the HQ of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority at Bainbridge, to meet with wildlife conservation officers, Tony Sergeant, and Ian Court. We were provided with great insights into some of the practical aspects of Curlew conservation in the National Park and discussed opportunities for inclusion of Curlew-focused activities in Defra’s new Farming in Protected Landscapes (FiPL) programme. Although Curlew populations in the National Park are thought to be stable, there are opportunities to trial methods to improve productivity and ensure these heartland populations endure in the long term.

The Yorkshire Dales NPA have produced a handy leaflet about the FiPL programme

Thursday 09 Dec

After an overnight stay in Barnard Castle, we attended the Northern Upland Chain Local Nature Partnership Board meeting, where Curlews have recently been a focus of discussion amongst the group (which included representatives from National Park Authorities, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs), Natural England, Forestry Commission, farmers, and land agents). We delivered a double-act presentation about the CRP and greatly enjoyed the chance to talk to people in a room rather than through a screen! Much of the subsequent discussion was focussed on new Defra agri-environment schemes, and it was encouraging to hear that a Curlew-focussed project in the region has already been approved for FiPL funding, with opportunities for more to be developed. There was an interesting discussion about forestry expansion and impacts on Curlews and other breeding waders, which is an area of growing interest and concern for the CRP.

Mary providing an update on CRP activities to the NUCLNP Board

Friday 10 Dec

After a deep sleep and a hearty breakfast at The Snooty Fox in Kirkby Lonsdale, we were greeted by icy pavements and dramatic skies, and the sight of Russ’ frozen walking boots lying where he had foolishly left them the previous night by the car park pay-and-display machine!

Our penultimate meeting of the trip was to Grosvenor's Abbeystead Estate, Lancashire, that holds approximately 1% of England’s breeding Curlews and is therefore a national stronghold for the species. Our aim was to understand some of the challenges facing private estates around farmland and moorland management, given recent and proposed changes in agri-environment and moorland management policy. The estate's employees are putting significant resources into habitat management and predator control, underpinned by an extensive suite of scientific data. However, although breeding Curlews and other waders are clearly benefitting from these measures, recent national policy changes already appear to be having adverse impacts on productivity. After some productive and useful discussion, we had the opportunity to see one of the sites on the estate that holds breeding Curlews – although it was relatively quiet at this time of year, it wasn’t hard to imagine the calls of Curlews ringing out over the high open moorland, hillside farmland, and wooded valley habitats dominating the impressive vista before us.

After lunch we drove through more dramatic scenery (and glimpsed a flock of wintering Curlews!) on our way to the HQ of Forest of Bowland AONB at Dunsop Bridge to meet with Elliott Lorimer, the AONB Manager. We heard about recent studies carried out by RSPB and others in the AONB, and the complex interplay between sporting and agricultural interests and iconic species such as Curlew and Hen Harrier. There was also further discussion about exploring opportunities for new Curlew conservation activity as part of the FiPL programme, but soon our time was up, and we had to bid farewell before heading home.

Curlew breeding habitat in the Forest of Bowland AONB

After an intense but fascinating four days we had much to discuss and ponder on our return journey south. We both agreed it had been a very worthwhile visit, with some useful leads and potential Curlew conservation projects to follow up. But it also reinforced the importance of understanding wider contexts, especially relating to the current climate and biodiversity crisis. We are very grateful to everyone who hosted us and made us feel welcome during our trip, and we look forward to further visits in the spring when the Curlews are calling!

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