Hello, and welcome to the Curlew Recovery Partnership (CRP). My name is Russell Wynn and I’ve recently been appointed as the CRP Manager, a role which will no doubt prove to be both challenging and fascinating in equal measure, and one where an optimistic outlook is likely to be a vital attribute!
By way of introduction, I’m going to focus on my home turf here in the New Forest National Park. The back garden of our family home, near the eastern boundary of the forest, backs onto paddocks and meadows that, any day now, are likely to host the first returning Curlews of the spring. They don’t nest in this habitat, preferring instead the damp heaths and bogs of the forest interior, but they often feed in these marginal fields that are rich in invertebrate prey.
The first Curlew on my local patch in 2020 arrived on 25 Feb
The small population of breeding Curlews in the New Forest is joined by several hundred wintering birds along our local coastline, however, many of these birds are likely to be visitors from mainland Europe. Our local breeding population has declined significantly in recent decades, possibly by as much as two-thirds, in line with national trends. The remaining pairs form the last bastion of this species in central southern England, and if we lose them the UK distribution map will show a significant contraction.
In 2016, a colleague and I set up an independent wildlife group called Wild New Forest, which until recently was operated in our spare time as a voluntary conservation initiative (we became a Community Interest Company in 2020 to enable us to conduct contract work and guided wildlife tours). One of our priorities in our first year was to work with Forestry England to accurately assess the current population of breeding Curlews in the New Forest, and identify the pressures impacting upon them.
With the support of a large number of volunteer observers supplemented by public sightings data, we’ve been able to determine that the New Forest has consistently held 40-50 breeding pairs of Curlews over the last five years, but that productivity is alarmingly low, with no more than a handful of chicks making it through to fledging. So, unless our current cohort of breeding adults is replaced by new recruits, we risk a rapid decline and local extinction.
Deployment of technology such as nest temperature loggers has revealed that about half of our clutches never even make it to hatching, largely due to nocturnal mammalian predators such as Foxes. Visual observations have highlighted the additional threats to chicks posed by avian predators such as Buzzards, Ravens and Carrion Crows (largely based upon the response behaviour of adult Curlews to these species). Our annual monitoring work in the March to July nesting season has become a war of attrition, with early hope gradually eroded as eggs and chicks inexorably disappear, followed soon after by the forlorn adults.
This was one of very few New Forest Curlew chicks to make it to fledging in 2020
Recreational disturbance is also a big issue in the New Forest and may be restricting Curlews’ choice of safe nesting sites; in addition, people and dogs wandering off marked paths can cause incubating birds to leave the nest or chick-rearing adults to start alarm calling, potentially alerting predators to their location. Increased signage and other mitigation measures are currently being implemented by Forestry England, and we have also utilised local and regional media and an appearance on BBC Countryfile to further increase public awareness.
In the last couple of years, new GPS tracking studies of breeding Curlews, involving colleagues from GWCT and a PhD student at Bournemouth University, have provided valuable insights into how Curlews use the New Forest and surrounding landscape, further illustrating the potential threats posed by a planned 10,000 new homes around the forest fringe.
Predators and people pressure are the two primary threats to Curlews in the New Forest
I’m telling this story because it encapsulates the grim reality of what is happening to Curlew populations across England and more widely in the UK and Europe. But it also shines a light on the remarkable groundswell of volunteer effort and associated media coverage that is already delivering positive action and alerting the public to this wildlife crisis - our New Forest alliance of land managers, researchers and passionate volunteers is just one of many across the country contributing to this inspiring new Curlew ‘life-support system’.
My job as the CRP Manager is to help co-ordinate this extraordinary effort, build a coherent network, and ensure that those engaged in Curlew conservation action across England are equipped with the knowledge, support and funding they require. Another key objective is to identify opportunities for Curlews (and their associated habitats and species) to be embedded in new agri-environment schemes - by helping Curlews we will hopefully be benefitting lots of other wildlife too.
I’m fortunate to be working with an inspiring Chair and an expert and passionate Steering Group, and am excited about meeting, listening to, and supporting all you Curlew enthusiasts out there!