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Curlews and silage: what can (and can't) be done

After such a cold and wet spring, farmers across the country are taking advantage of the current fine weather to cut grass for silage. Curlews will be breeding in some of these grass fields. This raises an important issue that we know, through correspondence to us, is causing concern and alarm in many regions. The vast majority of farmers want to look after the wildlife on their land and want to know how best to protect Curlew eggs and chicks. This short blog by the Curlew Recovery Partnership (CRP) aims to give a realistic picture of the situation as it stands at the moment.


If you suspect you have breeding Curlews in a field, it isn’t easy to find the nest. Curlews are very good at being cryptic. If there are experienced Curlew watchers in the area, they may be able to help, but it often takes hours of observation. Please see our Curlew Fieldworker Toolkit at the link below for information on the behaviour of nesting Curlews.

https://www.curlewrecovery.org/resources


If Curlews are present and breeding, they will likely be on eggs in the May-June period. If a Curlew nest fails at the egg stage, the birds may make a second nesting attempt and will be incubating later. It takes seven or eight weeks for the chicks to fledge, which for a first nest will occur in July, but for a second can be as late as August. Delaying the first cut to this extent is not a commercially feasible option for most farmers. If a nest with eggs is located, we recommend leaving an uncut patch of at least 10m x 10m around it, where possible, to protect the nest from agricultural activity (we can also provide a factsheet on temporary electric fencing upon request if this is a viable option, particularly if there will be stock following on).


If the eggs have already hatched, and you suspect there are chicks in the field, you can often tell by observing the adults’ behaviour. They will alarm call if they detect danger, a series of sharp barks or whaups, and appear agitated. Before mowing, many farmers ask if it is possible to find the chicks and remove them to safety before cutting. Unfortunately finding chicks is usually an extremely challenging and time-consuming process, even for experienced ornithologists. Leaving an uncut border around the field (or ensuring adjacent fields contain some suitable cover) and mowing slowly probably offer the best opportunities for a positive outcome – Curlew chicks are highly mobile, and the parent birds may therefore be able to steer them away from slow-moving machinery, although it should be stressed that this approach will not always be successful.


The CRP understand how difficult this is for farmers and thank all those who are trying their best to help Curlews in difficult circumstances. In the coming months we will be working with Defra to explore options for cost-effective methods of saving Curlew eggs and chicks in grassland habitats, but it will take time for this to be delivered. In the meantime, please contact us if you do have Curlews nesting in grasslands being cut for silage, as this will help us to identify the geographic extent of the issue and inform our discussions with Defra. We also welcome suggestions of potential solutions to this issue from farmers and other Curlew enthusiasts. Have you tried the methods outlined above, or others, and been successful or unsuccessful? Sometimes it is just as important to share knowledge about what hasn’t worked as what has! Our contact email is hello@curlewrecovery.org


Finally, the following advice comes from Amanda Perkins of the CRP Steering Group, and leader of the Shropshire-based Curlew Country project, who is often contacted by farmers who have Curlew chicks in silage fields:


We have found it necessary to save an area of 10 acres from being mown to save Curlew chicks. In our area the payments made to farmers per acre for this crop sacrifice are between £180 - £250 for beef and sheep. For dairy farms it will be higher. The amount takes into account not only the loss of crop, which will differ in quality and value on different farms, but the loss of following crop or grazing due to the delay in mowing and the knock-on effect this has elsewhere in the farming system. The chicks will take up to eight weeks to fully fledge depending on food availability. Small chicks often find it difficult to move through tall dense ryegrass, and chill if it is wet and they are unable to get dry, so the adults will lead them to more easily accessible grassland.


When we started the project, we asked farmers to follow the Corncrake mowing advice of starting inside the field and then working outwards in a spiral. We quickly discovered that this did not work with modern machinery and Curlew chicks would not in any case be driven into the bare sward of a neighbouring field, e.g. one that had been mown or heavily grazed, with nowhere to hide. Their instinct is to hunker down and hide from danger. A couple of years ago, we did manage to save some chicks by keeping them in sight and directing contractors with a much smaller, slower mower. They had the benefit of an approximately two-acre strip of species-rich habitat at the side of the field which they foraged in regularly and headed for once the mowing started. We were fortunate to have farming partner volunteers who helped us achieve this, but it would depend on the farmer and a known refuge. If you are saving a 10-acre area, start mowing as far away from that area as you can and mow up and down the field, hopefully driving them out. The slower and smaller the mower the better - it is unlikely to work if done at the speed of a modern forage harvester. You will then have to monitor the crop collection process as well.


If you can, keep an eye on where the family are until the mowing date. Daily checks will be necessary, the more frequent (as long as they are not being disturbed) the better. Then, when you get to the mowing date, you will have a better idea of their habits and where they are likely to be. It may be that they move from this field and do not return. Both adults and chicks need to find suitable foraging and sometimes roam widely to do so.


If you do know where the chicks are and can find them easily without damage to them or the crop, then find them and keep them safely in a high-sided container with plenty of room and some soft material or grass in the bottom, whilst the mowing takes place. Don’t try and handle them for any longer than necessary as they will struggle and are susceptible to accidental injury. The parents will be unhappy but should not abandon if the rescue and return is relatively quick (within 30 – 60 minutes). If you have an adjacent suitable habitat to put them in that is safely out of the mower’s way, that would be ideal. They will need some cover when the mowing is completed to protect them from predation in any case.


If you don’t know where the chicks are it is more difficult. The risk of trampling them underfoot is probably as great as losing them to agricultural activity. The adults will be luring you away from the chicks, but if you are an experienced ornithologist, you may be able to understand where some of them are. They will fly low over the chicks making a low single-note sound. The chicks are not likely to be next to one another either. The parents may also use this behaviour to divert you from the chicks’ location. You need to watch, preferably in a hide such as a car, for as long as you can to establish where they are and before any agricultural machinery gets on site.

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