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CRP visit to the Yorkshire Dales

By Russell Wynn (CRP Manager) and Mary Colwell (CRP Chair)

At the end of last year, we blogged about our fact-finding trip to northern England that incorporated visits to several organisations and landowners involved in Curlew conservation (see here). This year we will be undertaking several more trips around the country that will focus on a variety of habitats and issues – this will help us to better understand the constraints and concerns of Curlew conservationists and identify opportunities for CRP support.

On 08 March 2022, we headed north to speak at a local community event and to visit two farms on the southwest margin of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, which lies within the heartland for breeding Curlews in England. This area is dominated by in-bye farmland and unenclosed moorland and comprises some of the most spectacular scenery in the country, including the iconic limestone terrains of Ingleborough and Malham Tarn.

A view across to Gordale from Malham, showing the dramatic scenery and the contrast between in-bye farmland and unenclosed upland.

Our first visit was to Lawkland Hall Farm, hosted by Pete and Rona Webster and their delightful baby daughter, Nora. Calling Curlews were evident as soon as we arrived, and we subsequently saw at least 30 feeding on the valley floor and adjacent fields – provision of undisturbed damp grassland with patches of open water and a healthy invertebrate infauna is vital for these pre-breeding gatherings. Lapwings were noisily displaying and feeding in the fields and, as we ventured onto an area of wet grassland with scattered small pools, we put up numerous Snipe and observed their footprints and droppings on the dark peaty ground. Pete and Rona have exciting plans for leaky dams and other habitat enhancements on this 300-acre farm that should benefit Curlews and other breeding waders, and they are currently exploring a variety of potential funding options including the Defra Farming in Protected Landscapes (FiPL) scheme.

Looking across an area of damp grassland at Lawkland Hall Farm, which was home to abundant Curlews, Lapwing and Snipe.

As dusk fell, we met up with Sarah Smith, who helped co-ordinate and promote our evening talk at Clapham Village Hall. The hall was already filling up rapidly when we arrived, and by the time we started we were delighted to see a capacity audience. After a brief introduction from Jill Buckler of Clapham Sustainability Group and John Dawson of Bleak Bank Farm it was over to us to talk about the plight of the Curlew and the role of the CRP in supporting and facilitating local groups. This then nicely set up the next speaker, Hilary McGuire of RSPB, who is co-ordinating wader surveys in the area this spring across several local farms and has already had an encouraging response from volunteer surveyors. The talks were followed by a lively Q&A, and we have subsequently received several emails from farmers seeking advice and providing useful feedback.

Mary introducing the work of the CRP to a capacity crowd of farmers and other interested locals at Clapham Village Hall.

The following morning, we said our farewells to Sarah and headed over to Hill Top Farm in Malham to meet with Neil and Leigh Heseltine. Leigh is an ambassador for Curlew Action and Neil is Chairman of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority. We had a very useful discussion about some of the issues around silage production and breeding Curlews, that will help inform our ongoing discussions with policymakers. We also paid a quick visit to New House Farm National Nature Reserve, owned by the National Trust, and were able to compare the low-intensity farming operation there with a nearby high-intensity operation.

Although we only spent about three hours in the field during the two farm visits (and bearing in mind it is still effectively late winter at this altitude) we were fortunate to see some great wildlife, including good numbers of Curlew, Lapwing, and Snipe, as well as Buzzard, Barn Owl, Raven, Brown Hare, and Stoat. This assemblage of species wouldn’t look out of place on a nature reserve and highlights the wealth of wildlife that can be found in farmed landscapes with appropriate habitat management in place.

We also noticed how high densities of livestock (sheep and cattle), often supported by supplementary feeding, seemed to attract large aggregations of gulls and corvids – a total of six species were observed in these aggregations, including Lesser Black-backed Gull and Carrion Crow, both of which are known to predate wader eggs and chicks. This highlights the complicated relationship between farming activities and generalist predators, and the potential for lower-intensity farming practises to play a key role in reducing numbers of generalist predators in the long term, in addition to the current short-term option of lethal and non-lethal control measures. We have also recently heard of a FiPL project involving RSPB colleagues in the Forest of Bowland AONB that is exploring options for supplementary feed for sheep using secure feeders, which aims to remove this alternative and convenient food source for Lesser Black-backed Gulls and consequently reduce their use of sensitive areas holding breeding waders.

On that note, it’s clear that FiPL is providing a useful opportunity to farmers to start trialling interventions that will benefit Curlews and other breeding waders. The CRP intends to host an online session in the autumn to bring together those FiPL projects involving breeding Curlews, so all involved can share experiences and initial findings.

Finally, we’re very grateful to Sarah Smith for generously hosting and accommodating us during the visit, and to Jill Buckler, John Dawson, and Hilary McGuire for helping to deliver a great evening event. We’re also grateful to Pete and Rona Webster and to Neil and Leigh Heseltine for showing us around their farms and providing the opportunity to see some fantastic wildlife.

Mary and Leigh -two great Curlew champions!

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