Curlews in Braydon Forest, North Wiltshire


Braydon Forest is a traditional Curlew breeding area in North Wiltshire, between Malmesbury and Swindon; it is an ancient royal hunting ground, nowadays a land of rolling fields, with a hint of downland, some arable fields, some grassland much of which is cultivated for silage. Historical bird records show that Curlews once bred widely in Braydon Forest (and indeed over much of northern Wiltshire) but nowadays numbers are probably reduced to no more than five pairs. See attached maps of breeding Curlew in Wiltshire as a whole, and in Braydon Forest in particular; also the illustration of the decline in breeding Curlew in Wiltshire.

Aware of the current situation, and remembering Curlews on his farm in his youth, local landowner David Fitzherbert contacted the Curlew Forum, and arranged for a get-together of local farmers, hosted by his neighbour Sophie Scruton on 28 March. The session attracted a lively audience of about 50 farmers and other interested local people. An introductory talk on the current status of the Curlew in lowland England was given by Mary Colwell from the Curlew Forum, and then Jonathan Cooper of the Swindon and Wiltshire Biological Records Centre gave a presentation on the breeding Curlew survey planned in Braydon Forest in 2019.  The aim of the survey is to identify the exact fields on which Curlews are still breeding, to find nests, and then to take measures to protect nest and chicks. For details of the survey, and how to submit records, see below.

The presentations provoked a lively discussion, in which there was a strong sense that local people were keen to maintain the remaining Curlew population, and indeed to increase breeding numbers if possible. There was considerable concern over the likely effects of predation, by foxes, crows and even Red Kites. It was emphasized that it is much easier to conserve existing birds than to restore them after they have disappeared. To this end, participants agreed to inform the Biological Records Centre of any Curlews seen or heard on their land, and to allow surveyors to access areas of interest. It was suggested that any nests found be protected by electric fencing; and farmers were requested to leave some areas in nesting fields uncut as a refuge for chicks, once silage making begins in May. Offers of compensation (either by cash payments, or silage in lieu) were made.

It was further suggested that the whole issue could be given more publicity by posts on social media, notably through the Facebook pages of neighbouring villages.

Many thanks to David and Sophie for taking this initiative, which, it is hoped may be repeated in other areas of southern England.  Watch this space for reports of the outcome of the 2019 Braydon Forest Curlew Survey!

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