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Curlew conservation by Tom Orde-Powlett

Russ writes:

Curlews are not just fascinating (and challenging) birds to study and protect, they sit at the heart of many of the most pressing conservation issues of our age. One of the key roles of the Curlew Recovery Partnership (CRP) is to acknowledge and discuss these issues and assess their current and future impacts on Curlews; this is essential if we are to successfully mitigate these impacts. We are therefore asking CRP Steering Group members to pen their thoughts and experiences about Curlew conservation - their brief is to be inspiring and informative, and to highlight actions and issues on the ground in their areas. These are personal perspectives, but many of the issues raised are being actively discussed among the CRP Steering Group and our network partners, in order to try and find practical solutions that benefit Curlews and associated habitats and species. Our first contributor to this series is Tom Orde-Powlett of Bolton Castle Estate.

Tom Orde-Powlett at Bolton Castle Estate

Tom writes:

Since leaving the Army in 2007 I have lived and worked on my family’s land at Bolton Castle and have been involved in a variety of conservation initiatives, from salmon recovery and the Yorkshire Dales Rivers Trust in the valley bottom to peatland restoration on the moor tops. I have always been interested in wildlife and when the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) launched their Curlew Appeal in 2015, I discussed with my father and our keepers how we could focus our interest and love of Curlews in a more scientifically useful way. It has been a team effort and between our keepers, my father, our agent, and tenant farmers, we have engaged with neighbours, conservation NGO’s, the Yorkshire Dales National Park, Natural England and ringing groups in a variety of projects and areas of research as follows:

  • Canon-netting and colour marking 41 of our over-wintering Curlews, with a BTO licensed ringer and the Tees and East Dales Ringing Groups. We have since had over 100 re-sightings of these birds, the farthest afield being in County Cork.

  • Nest monitoring waders, using cameras and therma-loggers and developing ‘Trapline Surveys’ with the BTO and the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority (link to BTO report below:

  • Colour ringing wader chicks during the breeding season. We are managing a 183-acre farm on the moor edge in partnership with a local farmer, with the primary aim of supporting breeding waders, alongside economically viable agriculture. We are also developing a Farmer Cluster across 12,500 acres and, as of last week, farmers on the estate will begin carrying out BTO’s Wader Calendar surveys.

  • Supporting wildlife survey and monitoring, e.g. hosting a GWCT paired site for their research, undertaking various surveys from BTO Breeding Bird Surveys to Breeding Waders in the English Upland Farmland, involved in a Merlin project, acted as a receptor site for the Government’s Hen Harrier Recovery Plan, supporting long term monitoring of Peregrines and Ring Ouzels, and also provided a site for a Dormouse release project within the Yorkshire Dales National Park.

  • Working with our gamekeepers, artists, poets, farmers and conservation NGO’s, we have held two North of England Curlew Festivals at Bolton Castle, which has brought together a diverse range of conservationists and also raised awareness amongst the general public, many of whom have been on our curlew safaris.

Curlew colour ringing, with BTO-licensed ringer, Robin Ward, on the left and the Bolton Castle Estate headkeeper, Ian Sleightholm, on the right

This work has been very locally focussed, with delivery at landscape scale. It has been interesting through the increasingly national perspective of the CRP to begin to understand some of the wider challenges faced by Curlews in different areas. I am a firm believer in recognising the importance of local knowledge and the passion and commitment of people working at grass roots, in their own areas, which they know and love. To my mind, enabling these people and groups and facilitating a ‘Team of Teams’ approach is what will make the CRP a genuinely transformative network.

The CRP has an incredibly challenging role, for Curlews in their own right but also for pioneering a new era of conservation delivery, if we can demonstrate success. Water quality, natural flood management, soil health, carbon storage and the climate and biodiversity crises are extraordinarily closely interconnected. Economic viability of upland communities and the retention of rural skills will be needed more than ever to underpin the application of practical solutions to problems identified through science. In order for this to be achieved, delivery must be sustainable from an environmental perspective, but equally importantly it must be sustainable from social and economic perspectives as well. If we are successful, good management for Curlews will deliver benefits across all these pressing areas and I struggle to imagine a more widely loved and uncontroversial species for people of all ideologies to coalesce around.

Healthy balanced populations of predators and prey’ is a mantra which I believe we all aspire to. However, I recognise that there are some who promote the notion that a healthy balance doesn’t need to - or even shouldn’t – include a harvestable surplus of game.

I believe that a balance which allows Curlews to produce enough young to sustain their populations would produce an inevitable surplus of game birds, relevant to the suitable habitats they share. Curlew usually lay a clutch of four eggs, while a Red Grouse often lays over ten and similarly the Grey Partridge is even more fecund, with clutches frequently well into the teens. If a pair of Curlews can successfully fledge one chick per brood, it will have lost three to weather, predation, infertility etc. A grouse could lose three eggs and still produce six or seven fledged young, under the same level of predation, which allows sufficient commercial shooting to fund the predator control and habitat management on which both species (as well as many others) rely, while also providing jobs and other socio-economic benefits.

Curlew with chicks at Bolton Castle Estate

If this first step is agreed, it then raises the more challenging question of which predators should be controlled, in order to allow this breeding success to be achieved. Many of our most common generalist predators (which are usually also scavengers) are numerous because they are so well adapted to human management of both rural and urban environments, which are ultimately the result of increasing human population pressure, not just for food, but recreation, natural resources, homes, economic activity and even in the case of forestry, other conservation objectives.

If we are to succeed, adaptive management will undoubtedly be required, dependent on science and local knowledge, with the latter being particularly important where science is inconclusive, unproven or lacking. Most would agree that an appropriate balance should include the protection of predator species of greatest conservation concern. However, where it is identified that the more abundant predators – or more likely suites of predators – are reducing productivity below viable levels, they should be legally suppressed (not eliminated) to the extent that Curlews and other bird species of high conservation concern are able to produce sufficient young.

Controlled heather burning was far less contentious historically and, in some cases, underpinned the very designations of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), where breeding waders are most abundant, including Stainton Moor – Lovely Seat, part of which is managed by my family and our keepers. The citation at the link below states:

Both heather burning and predator control have been identified in numerous scientific papers, publications and even protected area designations as benefitting (or even being essential to the continued existence of) Curlews and other wader species. As Professor Ian Newton wrote for our Dartmoor Curlew Summit in 2018:

On the rough grassland of the uplands, predation is likely to be by far the most important factor. This view is supported by the finding that grouse moors, with their stringent predator control, seem now to be the only places where Curlew are still breeding well and maintaining their numbers.”

These interventions go to the heart of the controversy over grouse moor management, and while it is essential that moorland managers adhere to the highest standards and maximise delivery of conservation benefits, its is equally important that those opposed to shooting do not ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’. In the absence of economically viable grouse moor management, the alternative land uses are likely to be forestry or wind farms, either of which could be disastrous for Curlews and other breeding waders. And one only has to look at what has happened to Curlews on the SPAs of Berwyn or Langholm since gamekeeping stopped to get an idea of how disastrous this can be for these wonderful birds of open managed landscapes (see links below).

As the CRP, we must be the group that genuinely puts Curlews first, operates consistently and objectively, and supports actions that deliver positive outcomes for Curlews. While there has been great progress through the creation of the CRP, the breadth of members and interests, the healthy dialogue it enables, and our shared ambition to deliver Curlew recovery at a national scale, it will also need to focus attention on the challenges currently facing our remaining upland Curlew strongholds.

I believe that my most important role within the CRP’s Steering Group is therefore to ensure that we collectively acknowledge and address these challenges, including the fact that new and developing policies on controlled heather burning and predator control could pose an existential threat to our remaining Curlew strongholds.

Curlews in winter at Bolton Castle Estate

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