On 25 July I had the opportunity to visit the Curlew Country project that extends from Shropshire across the Welsh border into Powys and includes a large area that lies within the Shropshire Hills AONB. My host was Amanda Perkins, who heads up Curlew Country, and we were joined by Bethan Beech, who has just taken on the new role of Species Recovery Officer for Natural Resources Wales, with Curlew being one of her foci.
Curlew Country is rightly viewed by many in the Curlew conservation community as a pioneering local project, being one of the first to deploy Curlew head-starting as a conservation tool, as well as quantifying options for farmer compensation to mitigate losses due to grass cropping and delivering live nest cameras for public engagement. Amanda sits on the Curlew Recovery Partnership (CRP) Steering Group and is also a member of the Curlew Wales partnership. The CRP has supported Curlew Country over the last two years, specifically around delivery of Curlew Cam and associated educational resources for schools (see link to Curlew Cam here).
After an initial chat over a cup of tea in the Curlew Country project office we ventured outside to view the head-starting facilities, while also taking in the expansive views across the surrounding countryside.
The view from Curlew Country HQ, showing the rolling hills and scattered blocks of woodland.
My first impression of the landscape before me was one of heterogeneity, with a patchwork of relatively small fields interspersed with blocks of non-native conifer plantation and scattered deciduous trees, punctured by bald ridges and hillocks dominated by bracken and sheep-grazed grasslands. The landscape has been effectively drained and there were few wetland habitats on view, which together with the recent drought made it feel like a surprisingly dry landscape for breeding waders.
The area is also rich in avian predators, with abundant Ravens, Red Kites, Buzzards, and Kestrels seen overhead, and brief views of a Hobby wheeling over one of the few remaining boggy areas. Amanda confirmed that mammalian predators are also abundant in this landscape, particularly Foxes and Badgers.
When Curlew Country was established several years ago, the team soon discovered that the productivity of the local Curlew population (estimated to be 40 pairs) was at or close to zero, with no chicks observed to reach fledging. The main drivers of this low productivity came as no great surprise: predation of eggs and chicks, and losses due to grass cutting. It also became apparent that, in the absence of sustained agri-environment funding, it would be challenging to mitigate these pressures across this landscape.
Consequently, this was one of the first sites in England to undertake head-starting, a process whereby Curlew eggs are removed from the nest, incubated artificially, and the chicks raised in captivity before being released at fledging stage. Removal of eggs early in the season provides the nesting birds with an opportunity to lay a second clutch, which can develop naturally. But with perilously low productivity, this extreme intervention was deemed to be the only way to retain a breeding population in the short term.
Before our visit, the initial cohort of fledged ‘head-started’ juveniles had been released from their pen, and the remaining birds were busy feeding and wing-stretching in preparation for their first flights (click here to see a video of the first release). Coming from the New Forest, where our population of 40-45 pairs produces no more than 5-10 chicks per year, it was a novel experience to observe so many nearly fledged chicks running around, and it was great to watch their behaviour and individual characters. However, it was also clear that this is a labour-intensive operation, and the resources required for head-starting inevitably deflect attention away from other aspects of the project.
Head-started juvenile Curlews in the pens at Curlew Country HQ
I agree with Amanda’s conclusion that landscapes like Curlew Country will require sustained funding to support the targeted predator control, farmer compensation mechanisms, and ornithological monitoring that will enable Curlew recovery in the long term, and that agri-environment schemes are the only realistic mechanism to deliver this over the required timescales. It should also be recognised that a reduction in predator pressure combined with incentives to deliver species-rich grasslands with later cutting would deliver a wider range of ecosystem benefits, including supporting other vulnerable ground-nesting birds and a variety of specialist meadow flora and invertebrates.
The CRP are currently engaging with Defra to explore options for including these measures in future agri-environment schemes, potentially including trials as part of the Local Nature Recovery pilots next year that form the middle tier of the Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme. Bethan will also be exploring options as part of the developing Welsh agri-environment scheme, called the Sustainable Farming Scheme.
I’m grateful to Amanda for hosting my visit, and we are both looking forward to working closely with Bethan as she settles into her new role. Further details of the Curlew Country project can be found here.