Yesterday I went to see the last few pairs of Curlews in the beautiful counties of Herefordshire and Worcestershire. I would like to thank Phil Hitchen, Stuart Brown, Chris Wells and Chris Robinson for spending a day with me and being so helpful - it was fascinating, informative, and very worrying.
In essence, the Curlews are hanging on with no more than two pairs in any one location, spread out over the landscape. They are mostly in large fields, some on floodplains as in Lugg Meadow, for example, which is a Lammas meadow. Lammas is an ancient way of managing seasonally flooded farmland, which means the grass is cut later in the summer, which gives ground nesting birds a chance to fledge. Lugg Meadow is owned by the Herefordshire Wildlife Trust, who now manage it primarily for wildflowers. For botanical and economic reasons, the meadow is usually cut in June, which is when nesting Curlews normally have young chicks. Two pairs nest in the meadow, and have sometimes succeeded in the past. One chick was seen last year but subsequently disappeared, possibly due to crow predation. Other Curlew nests across the counties are found on farms where the fields are not all given to silage. Despite a reasonable hatching success, most chicks do not make it to fledging, with avian and mammalian predation being the likely cause.
Between the two counties about 20 Curlew pairs are monitored by Phil, Stuart, Chris and Chris. A couple of those pairs manage to get a chick away every so often, but the majority haven’t succeeded for years. The locals we spoke to said how common they used to be, but now they are rarely heard. These memories are important – the last vestiges of past abundance are still alive in some people’s minds.
Chris Wells and Phil Hitchen looking for Curlews at Longdon Marsh, Worcestershire
A farmer in Herefordshire in his 60s talked to me for a while. He is sympathetic to Curlews to a point and did delay mowing and cut around a nest last year when it was pointed out to him. I asked him if he liked them on his land? They are nice, he said with a shrug. Is he sad they are disappearing? Well - he saw a lot in Yorkshire on holiday so he’s not too bothered about Herefordshire. What he is bothered about is the looming threat of food shortages and he thinks his land could work harder given the present global situation. If the Curlews go, so be it, people are more important. He said he had always believed the problem farmland wildlife has faced over the last few decades is subsidies. Paying farmers divorces the public from the true cost of food. Everyone expects cheap food today, so that is what he has to provide. He said that giving farmers money encourages them to spend it on whatever is bigger, better and faster, forcing a race to intensification. He told me the only reason he doesn’t plough up the Curlew fields for potatoes is because he has enough money and doesn’t need to, but when he comes to sell the farm in the near future (he doesn’t have a family member to take it on) any young family will most likely do that to make a living - or sell the land for housing. I asked him if, in the future, he was paid to keep Curlews and other wildlife, would he? At first, he said no, food was more important - but as we left, he said that if there was a package, and it was competitive, then he would probably look at it as he liked wildlife.
Curlew habitat on Herefordshire farmland
To give two contrasting situations: a field in Worcestershire, where two pairs are nesting in a patch of rough grassland, the farmer does not rely on farming for income and is uninterested in the birds; he won’t allow Phil and Stuart to monitor them. On the other hand, a farmer on the Welsh borders in Herefordshire is desperate to keep hold of her one remaining pair. Thirty years ago, there were many and she would camp out just to hear them. She didn’t know why they had gone or what to do about it, but would love to bring them back. The single nest is predated by crows every year.
The Curlews in this farming heartland of England are creatures from a past time, hanging on and trying to make it work in a landscape that is simply not prepared to accommodate them. These birds are the Last of the Mohicans, surrounded by hostility and destined to disappear unless serious help comes galloping over the horizon. The volunteers from both counties want to do headstarting, to pump birds back into the land that once supported them. There is a palpable sense of frustration that headstarting projects seem to be concentrated in areas that are not necessarily known for Curlews and don’t have a recent history of them. They wondered if somewhere nearby could act as “chick central”, and raise headstarted eggs to one- or two-day-old chicks, which could then be distributed to suitable places. But the hard reality is that this is difficult and expensive to do. These small, dedicated groups have no money, no people-power, no equipment, no land of their own; they can’t enforce habitat management or any predator control. Even so, would this be worth a go? Desperate times need desperate measures, and it might keep the birds going until the big policy issues are sorted out?
Curlew habitat at Callow End, Worcestershire
The big question. Is it worth trying to save Curlews in these landscapes? Some would say no - they are doomed, put the effort into populations that have a chance. But the volunteers on the ground don’t want to give up, and they keep hoping for a change in farm payments, land practices, headstarting - anything - to turn it around. Phil Hitchen has a fine turn of phrase and hits the nail on the head: unless wildlife flows from public policy we will always be fighting a losing battle. For plant conservation we can start a seed bank - but there is no egg bank for Curlews, when they are gone, they are gone. Reintroductions are so much more difficult and expensive.
Personally, I’m with the Herefordshire and Worcestershire battlers. As long as the birds sing, so should we. But it is on the edge. Russ wasn’t able to join me on this visit as he has COVID, but I wished he had, it was a sad drive home on my own.