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Curlew Recovery Partnership England: a review of the first two years

The Curlew Recovery Partnership (CRP) was initiated in March 2021, supported by Defra start-up funding and a dedicated group of founding members. Two years on, the CRP Chair, Mary Colwell, and Manager, Prof Russell Wynn, review progress to date and discuss the future direction of the partnership.

Part 1: The CRP and its activities

1.1. The Curlew Recovery Partnership

The CRP has nine founding partners who are all represented on the CRP Steering Group, which meets online every fortnight and at least twice a year in person; these partners are bound together by a shared commitment to Curlew conservation, and more formally by a comprehensive Collaboration Agreement. The partners represent a wide range of interests, including four large conservation charities, two small Curlew-specific charities, two major landowners, and a statutory nature conservation body; we have been greatly encouraged by their collective enthusiasm for engaging in constructive and respectful dialogue regarding challenging issues. Even when disagreements occur, the resulting discussions often trigger useful suggestions that result in progress tackling a particular issue. Importantly, the breadth of the partnership, supported by the independent Chair and Manager, enables the CRP to provide a balanced and evidence-based perspective on topical conservation issues, which facilitates external engagement with the public, policymakers, and the CRP network. Further information on the CRP Steering Group and its members is on our website here.

1.2. Data and research

The CRP is committed to being an evidence-based partnership, and to that end we have established a CRP Research Working Group to keep track of the latest research developments and identify knowledge gaps that can provide a focus for future research.

One of the most obvious knowledge gaps relates to population size. The current UK population of Eurasian Curlew is estimated to be 58,500 pairs, which is equivalent to about 25% of the global population. Around half of the UK population is in England, so roughly 25,000-30,000 pairs. However, these figures are estimates, and are based upon data that, for the most part, are over a decade old, and we have real concerns that today’s figures may be much lower.

Thanks to research conducted by BTO and other partners, we have greater confidence in the rate of decline, which equates to a halving of the UK population in the last couple of decades. We also know that low productivity is driving recent declines, as opposed to reduced adult survival, and that predation and agricultural operations are the key drivers of this low productivity. It is estimated that, nationwide, productivity is roughly half the 0.5 chicks per pair per year required for a sustainable population.

Graham Appleton, who produces the excellent Wader Tales blog, has estimated here that an extra 10,000 Curlew chicks per year are required to achieve a stable population. This alarming figure helps to focus the mind on national-scale solutions, primarily in farmed landscapes, and highlights the importance of suitable agri-environment measures that can be delivered at the appropriate scale.

It is estimated that an extra 10,000 fledged Curlew chicks per year are needed for a sustainable population...

Further information on Curlews in England can be viewed on the CRP website here, including an ‘Introduction to Curlews’ slide pack that is freely available for download.

1.3. Delivering resources

The CRP website hosts a variety of useful resources for Curlew fieldworkers that are free to download here, including the Curlew Fieldworker Toolkit and links to the BTO Wader Calendar. We have also delivered several online events, including a seminar series on World Curlew Day 2021 that is available on the CRP YouTube channel here. A CRP Survey, Monitoring, and Training Working Group was established in 2022 to develop additional resources, such as the delivery of two one-day training workshops in spring 2022, at Abbeystead Estate in Lancashire and RSPB Otmoor in Oxfordshire (see report here). This Working Group has also developed a new Curlew Survey and Monitoring protocol here, and an online video guide to Curlew nest fencing here.

Image showing the wide range of Curlew conservationists coming together for the CRP training workshop at Abbeystead Estate in spring 2022.

1.4. Community and public engagement

In our first two years, we’ve developed a network of over 350 Curlew conservationists across England, comprising farmers, gamekeepers, ornithologists, scientists, and more. Our aim has been to support and empower them by providing resources and training (as outlined above), and to listen to them to ensure we understand the key issues at both national and regional scale. Initially, during COVID lockdown, most of our community engagement was online. The outcome of various modes of online consultation was the development of the CRP Work Programme here, and identification of the big issues in Curlew conservation that are covered in Part 2 below.

The CRP Chair talking about Curlews and their conservation in a packed village hall in Clapham, Yorkshire Dales.

Fortunately, as COVID restrictions eased in late 2021, we were able to get out and about across England visiting local Curlew groups and communities in both lowland and upland settings. Our immediate action was to talk to as many people as possible to get feedback on the most important issues for Curlews in different habitats across the country. As we are both from southern England, and relatively familiar with issues in this region, our initial focus was to visit sites in the uplands of northern England, in the Curlew heartland; overviews of these visits can be viewed on the CRP blog here and here. We have subsequently taken the opportunity to visit projects spearheaded by Steering Group members in lowland southern England, including the Severn and Avon Vales here and Curlew Country here). In all cases, the concern that people had for their local breeding Curlew populations was palpable, but with a few exceptions there was limited tangible support that we could provide in the absence of appropriate agri-environment measures to mitigate losses to grass cropping and predation.

Part 2: Tackling the big issues in Curlew conservation

2.1. Agricultural operations and agri-environment schemes

Probably our largest source of frustration over the last two years has been the shifting sands of agri-environment policy. The development of the new Environmental Land Management scheme (ELM) was viewed by the CRP as a great opportunity to enable farmers across the country to access funds to deliver Curlew-friendly measures on their land. We therefore established CRP Working Groups looking at how agri-environment options could be used to mitigate losses to agricultural operations and predation, but the goalposts kept moving amidst political turmoil and consequently these groups had nothing tangible to aim for. The initial rollout of the Sustainable Farming Incentive and Landscape Recovery components in 2022 contained very little to benefit Curlews, and the middle tier, Local Nature Recovery, which we had been told was where Curlew-friendly measures would be concentrated, has recently been replaced by Countryside Stewardship Plus (CS+), details of which have yet to be developed. In addition, although the CRP was established with initial Defra support, including Ministerial sign off, achieving subsequent engagement with Defra has been challenging, particularly the team delivering ELM.

On a more positive note, we have been working increasingly closely with Natural England, most recently to secure Species Recovery Programme (SRP) funding that would allow us to test various interventions in farmed landscapes in 2023-24, with a view to providing an evidence base to inform Defra policy measures within CS and CS+ (further details in Part 3 below). We have also supported several local groups that have established Curlew conservation projects as part of the Defra Farming in Protected Landscapes (FiPL) programme, primarily in northern England. In autumn 2022, we provided a forum for these projects to exchange information and advice, including those considering applying for FiPL project funding in the future. A two-part recording of the workshop is available on the CRP YouTube channel here, and provides a useful summary of some of the issues and opportunities around Curlew conservation in farmed landscapes. We are pleased to see that the FiPL programme has recently been extended by Defra for a further year, to 31 March 2025.

The CRP Chair and Manager at a site meeting at RSPB Otmoor in May 2022, with the Natural England Chair, Tony Juniper, and the Site Manager, David Wilding.

2.2. Mitigating predation

In addition to agricultural operations, the other major block on Curlew productivity in England is predation. On sporting estates, particularly driven grouse moors in upland areas, sustained predator and habitat management can result in productive populations of Curlew and other breeding waders. However, lethal predator management is not currently included in agri-environment schemes, and delivering it in farmed landscapes where Curlew may be breeding at low density is logistically challenging. There is the additional challenge that, in some Curlew areas, protected mammalian and avian predators, and livestock such as sheep, appear to be major causes of nest and/or chick loss. The largest analysis of nest camera data yet conducted in the UK, co-ordinated by Working for Waders in Scotland, found that Sheep were the dominant predator of wader nests, followed by Badger, with more expected predators such as Foxes and corvids lagging some way behind (see here and here).

2.3. Forestry and housing developments

Forestry is rapidly rising up the Curlew conservation agenda, driven by national tree-planting targets and associated schemes. We are concerned by the apparent default situation, in part driven by the complex land ownership situation across much of England, whereby we end up with a patchwork of relatively small woodland blocks scattered randomly across open landscapes that both remove Curlew breeding habitat but also provide predators with convenient stepping-stones and access points.

We are particularly concerned about moorland fringe habitats, including what is referred to as ‘white ground’ in many regions, which are of vital importance for breeding Curlew and other waders, but are often targeted for tree-planting schemes because of their low agricultural value (despite their importance for delivery of other ecosystem services including carbon and water storage).

We are also hearing anecdotally that Curlews are increasingly being perceived locally as a ‘problem’ by those keen to plant trees, rather than as a component of a strategic land-use assessment that aims to tackle both the climate and nature emergencies. Consequently, we are now developing a CRP Forestry and Curlews Working Group to ensure we have regular dialogue with colleagues in Forestry England, and to enable us to input into the forthcoming one-year review of the Upland Wader Guidance.

We receive regular enquiries from concerned members of our network, and the wider public, about local planning applications for both tree-planting and housing developments that are likely to negatively impact breeding and/or wintering Curlews. Unfortunately, we lack capacity and expertise to delve into the casework required to authoritatively respond to local planning applications, and it would detract from other activities where we need to retain a national focus. Consequently, we tend to provide informal advice but decline to respond formally. We are currently compiling guidance for those concerned about local planning applications and Curlews, that will be available on the CRP website as a useful future reference.

2.4. Other important issues

Grouse moors cover 7% of the land area in the UK, but hold 36% of our breeding Curlews, as well as nationally important numbers of other waders including Golden Plover, Lapwing, Dunlin, and Redshank. Predator management associated with grouse moors is proven to improve breeding wader productivity and typically extends onto adjacent moorland fringe and in-bye habitats, which can also host high densities of Curlews and other breeding waders. Complex issues such as the influence of heather burning vs cutting on Curlew habitat, the role of Lesser Black-backed Gull predation, and the future of grouse moors in an uncertain socio-economic and political climate, have all came to the fore during our visits to grouse moors in northern England, and during our Steering Group discussions.

CRP Steering Group members watching Curlews during a meeting at Bolton Castle Estate in May 2022.

Head-starting and translocation has been another regular topic of discussion, and one that is increasingly featured in national and regional media. However, although the handful of schemes currently in operation have achieved high fledging rates, it is too early to say whether sufficient chicks will return to the release areas to secure population recovery (or establishment in the case of translocations). In addition, due to the resources required, it’s clear that head-starting will only make a minor contribution to the 10,000 extra chicks per year required for population stability at national scale, but it could play an important role at regional or local scale. For example, in southern England, head-starting and translocation schemes are already providing as many as half of the 250 or so chicks per year that are needed for a stable regional population of 500 pairs, and if these fledged birds ultimately recruit into the region (even if not at their specific release sites) then this could make a substantial contribution to regional recovery.

Part 3: Looking forwards

3.1. NE Species Recovery Programme.

We have recently partnered with Natural England in a two-year Curlew Species Recovery Programme (SRP) bid, which would be co-ordinated by the CRP with scientific oversight provided by BTO and partners in the CRP Research Working Group. The aim of this SRP is to trial interventions that will address the key drivers of low productivity outlined above and inform developing agri-environment measures. The funding decision should be made imminently, and the intention is to commence fieldwork in spring 2022. Although Russ will be stepping down as CRP Manager on 31 March (with his replacement due to be announced soon) he is intending to act as CRP co-ordinator for the lowland southern England component of the SRP on a part-time basis if it is funded.

3.2. Informing and influencing policy

In addition to our engagement with Natural England through the proposed SRP, we will be seeking to engage more closely with the Defra ELM team going forwards, and already have Natural England support in this. We will also be seeking to influence Defra’s promised land-use framework for England, which could be a crucial mechanism to address some of the tensions outlined above, especially given a recent Royal Society study suggested a further 1.4 million ha of land (equivalent to Northern Ireland) are required by 2030 to meet existing land-based policy commitments. The CRP has a future role in championing species recovery and promoting the value of open upland landscapes (not just for Curlew and other breeding waders, but also for vital ecosystem services such as carbon and water storage), both to the public and to policymakers.

3.3. UK and international collaboration

The CRP is obviously focussed on England, but informally engages with partners in devolved administrations, including representation as a guest on the Curlew Wales Steering Group and regular engagement with the RSPB Curlew Life team that spans England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. There is an existing UK and Ireland Curlew Action Group, but this meets annually at best and is primarily a forum for information exchange. Going forwards, the CRP aims to engage more regularly and effectively with UK and Irish partners, including through hosting of joint activities, e.g. a planned online workshop on nest cameras in partnership with Working for Waders.

There will also need to be consideration, given limited resources, of the extent to which the CRP engages in international Curlew conservation activities. Significant numbers of our wintering Curlews originate from northern and central Europe, while some of our breeding Curlews winter in France and Iberia. New initiatives such as the EU LIFE programme developing a European multispecies conservation plan for wet grassland habitats provide valuable collaborative opportunities, but any UK contributions would benefit from a co-ordinated approach.

3.4. Partnership working

We are aware that the CRP is often viewed as having significant staff and financial resources, in part due to the strength of its Steering Group, whereas the reality is that only the Manager is a salaried staff member (with the current Chair receiving a stipend) and all other partner contributions are voluntary. Consequently, it is important that we draw upon our partners resources and expertise wherever possible, with appropriate acknowledgement. We have therefore established a CRP Fundraising Working Group to explore avenues for future funding and, going forwards, we will look to support appropriate partners to take a lead in funding bids, with the CRP taking a slice to cover core costs.

CRP Steering Group members at a strategy meeting at WWT Slimbridge in summer 2021.

Finally, we are also acutely aware that Curlew conservation is a long game, and that recovery will likely take many years or decades to achieve (if at all in some areas). Maintaining capability and momentum over these timescales is challenging, so striking an appropriate balance between realism and optimism when communicating externally will be vital, while ensuring we continue to support the conservation of Curlews as well as those striving to conserve them.

Screengrab from Curlew Cam in early summer 2021, which is delivered by Curlew Country and with financial support from the CRP.

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