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Working to save Curlew in the Braydon Forest

In autumn 2021, the Curlew Recovery Partnership was able to connect a private donor with a local Curlew conservation organisation in north Wiltshire - the Curlew Call project. Here, Jonny Cooper, the co-ordinator of the Curlew Call project, provides an overview of the 2022 breeding season:

Located in north Wiltshire, the Braydon Forest is a landscape consisting mostly of small cattle farms and meadows interspersed with ancient woodland. Historically, the area was a stronghold for Curlew, however, in the last 30 years numbers have crashed by almost 90% with just five pairs remaining.

Since 2019, the Curlew Call project has been working to protect the remaining birds and improve the long-term prospects for Curlews in the area. The project is a collaboration between local landowners, Wiltshire and Swindon Biological Records Centre, and Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, and seeks to deliver practical on-the-ground conservation action.

The field season kicks off in early March with birds returning to the breeding area. At this time, they will often visit communal roosts; monitoring these roosts helps us to understand how many birds may be breeding locally. From the middle of March, birds begin to establish their territories and we monitor each breeding attempt. Much of this work is undertaken by landowners who report sightings to us.

Curlew at a breeding site in Braydon Forest (Photo: Philip Law)

Once territories have been established, there is a window of opportunity for colour marking the birds. Fitting birds with a uniquely coded leg flag enables individual identification, allowing return rates, movements, and survival to be monitored. In 2022, we were unsuccessful in our attempts to colour mark birds. However, a bird ringed in 2021 was re-sighted in Cornwall during the winter and has bred again in the Braydon Forest in 2022.

As the birds begin to settle down to the business of egg laying and incubation, we spend time trying to find nests or likely nesting areas and implementing protection measures. This involves fencing off the area containing a nest to help protect it from predators or working with landowners to leave areas around nests uncut. Both actions were used in the Braydon Forest in 2022 and as a result two pairs were able to successfully hatch chicks. However, the story takes a sadder turn with both pairs losing their young, likely to predation. Overall, in 2022 no Curlew chicks fledged from the Braydon Forest.

Photo showing nest fencing around a Curlew nest in lowland meadow habitat in Braydon Forest (Photo: Jonny Cooper)

This frustrating result shows the harsh reality of Curlew conservation. Lowland Curlew populations typically have very low success rates with many nests and chicks lost to disturbance, machinery, or predation. This low success rate is the biggest challenge facing us in the Braydon Forest; in the four years the Curlew Call project has been running chicks were only successfully fledged once. This results in no young birds coming through to replace the current breeding birds when they die, leading to an ageing population. Therefore, not only are we faced with the challenge of low productivity year on year, we are also racing against the clock to turn this around before we lose the remaining birds to old age.

The decline in Curlew numbers in the lowlands seems to have been driven in part by the intensification of grassland management and a switch to early silage cutting; this destroys nests and kills chicks. To have any hope of saving these beautiful birds in the Braydon Forest, change has to happen fast and at a landscape scale.

The outlook for Curlew in the Braydon Forest seems bleak, but there is hope. Across the Braydon Forest there is a network of farmers willing to do what they can to help. This support has been brought together at a landscape scale through the creation of a farm cluster with breeding waders and grassland management at its core. Going forward this will help facilitate the changes needed to make the landscape more Curlew friendly. In addition to helping Curlew, the work of the cluster will benefit species such as Lapwing, Skylark, Brown Hare, and the Marsh Fritillary butterfly, demonstrating the importance of Curlew as an umbrella species for conservation.

The Curlew of the Braydon Forest are in a perilous state however by working with landowners and initiating change at a landscape scale I believe they can still be saved.

Further information on the Curlew Call project can be found here.

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