On 15 June 2022, the CRP Chair (Mary Colwell) and Manager (Russell Wynn) visited the Severn and Avon Vales to see how the WWT project team are progressing with their local Curlew conservation programme. This area is one of the most important lowland Curlew colonies in England, with 30-35 pairs scattered across a landscape dominated by damp and seasonally flooded meadows. Further information about the national importance of these meadows can be found in this recent WWT article:
We met up mid-morning with our WWT colleagues, Mike Smart, Kane Brides, Dan Gornall, and Clara Wiggins. Mike is a highly experienced field observer and knows every blade of grass at his local sites, and this year he has received excellent field support from Kane and Dan – collectively they have worked brilliantly as a team and have taken advantage of the good weather to find over half of the Curlew nests from the local population. Clara is WWT’s Communications and Campaigns Manager and is responsible for ensuring the team’s work reaches a wider audience.
The WWT Curlew 'dream team', featuring (from left to right) Dr Geoff Hilton, Mike Smart, Dan Gornall and Kane Brides
The first site on our itinerary was an extensive meadow called Upham Ham, which is visible from the M5 as it crosses over the meadow north of Gloucester. There is no public access between March and August to help minimise recreational disturbance, and because it is a traditional Lammas meadow it is cut in stages and relatively late in the season. Consequently, several pairs of Curlew continue to nest in this meadow, and regularly produce fledged chicks. However, the team are concerned that this year they have had a poor breeding season, and sure enough we soon encountered a flock of about a dozen Curlews that were loafing around, which were likely to be failed breeders. There was no sign of any other breeding waders, highlighting the decline since the site was designated as a SSSI for its assemblage of breeding waders including Redshank, Snipe and Lapwing, which have all but disappeared from the wider Severn and Avon Vale.
A view across the extensive floodplain meadow at Upham Ham, home to several pairs of breeding Curlew
We were joined after lunch by another WWT colleague and CRP Steering Group member, Geoff Hilton, before heading to two more sites - encouragingly these both still held alarming adults, indicating that chicks were almost certainly present. The team are working closely with local farmers who own these sites, with one stopping mowing when he noticed alarming Curlews and another picking the young chicks up and carrying them in his tractor cab until mowing was completed. However, predators always provide an additional threat, and an adult Curlew was seen mobbing a Red Kite as it drifted overhead - together with Raven these recovering generalist predators pose a relatively new threat to Curlew eggs and chicks, which cannot be overcome with nest fencing.
The combined losses to mowing and predation mean that, despite all the team’s efforts, the productivity of the local population is still below sustainable levels. However, they are progressively homing in on the key issues, and identifying solutions to overcome them. To buy some more time, the WWT Slimbridge team head-started 50 Curlew chicks in 2019; about one-third of these have been re-sighted at nearby estuarine sites, and a few have recently appeared at local breeding sites (as well as other sites in England).
It’s going to be a long and difficult journey to maintain this Curlew population in the face of so many pressures. It’s clear that identifying a funding mechanism to maintain long-term co-operation between local farmers and ornithologists will be crucial to success. For the latest update on the current partnership between the WWT team and local farmers (which is part of the WWT Flourishing Floodplains project) see this press release from 30 June 2022:
As elsewhere in England, close co-operation between ornithologists and local farmers is a vital component of Curlew conservation in the Severn and Avon Vales
Finally, thanks to the WWT team for showing us around, and particular thanks to Kane and Dan for giving up valuable time in the aftermath of a scary incident involving a WWT truck, a serious fire, and lots of incinerated field equipment!