Breeding Curlew on Exmoor

Exmoor, like Dartmoor and Bodmin Moor, is an area of southwest England traditionally associated with breeding Curlews and their haunting calls in wild open country. Previous reports on the Curlewcall website have referred to dramatic decreases in breeding Curlews – almost to complete extinction – on Dartmoor and Bodmin Moor, partly because of increased disturbance from human visitors, partly because of drainage of their preferred habitats and probably also because of increased predator pressure from foxes, badgers and crows. Until now, there have been no reports on this website about the Curlew situation on Exmoor. Now David Ballance, the doyen of Somerset ornithologists (and author of the recent “Avifaunas, Atlases and Authors – A Personal View of Local Ornithology in the United Kingdom, from the Earliest Times to 2019”), has provided a great deal of information on the status of the species in the Somerset sector of Exmoor, with extensive references to publications by other Somerset and Devon authors; Devon authors, notably Humphrey Sitters and Mike Lock, the authors of the Devon bird atlases of 1988 and 2017, have kindly given information and permission for their maps to be reproduced below. Information from a survey of Exmoor mires and their birds in 2011 and 2012 carried out by Dave Boyce (ecological consultancy), commissioned by RSPB for South West Water, is also quoted.

It is not a reassuring read; the situation on Exmoor is clearly quite as bad as on Dartmoor, indeed rather worse.

Past History and Recording Systems

Relevant documents are the Somerset avifauna (Ballance 2006) which covers records to the end of 2004, and the recent second edition of The Birds of Exmoor and the Quantocks (Ballance, Gibbs and Butcher, 2016) which covers the period until the end of 2014 and includes the Devon side of the Moor. The latter gives Curlew’s status as “uncommon and now on the verge of extinction”. For Devon there is the 1988 Tetrad Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Devon edited by Humphrey Sitters (fieldwork 1978 to 1985) and the more recent Devon Bird Atlas 2007-2013, edited by Stella Beavan and Mike Lock.

The authors of the book on Exmoor and the Quantocks note that, until the Surveys of Exmoor began in 1978, there was very little evidence on breeding anywhere outside the Dunkery area; such records as existed suggested that Curlew was widely distributed in most years. In the 1978 Exmoor Survey, and in Sitters’ 1988 Atlas, there appeared to be up to 40 pairs on the Moor, with a distribution ranging from the coastal tops west of Lynton to many parts of the Forest and the Molland Moor/Anstey Commons ridge in Devon; there were contacts on Brendon Common, in Farley Water (both Devon) and on Winsford Hill (Somerset), in addition to the well-known population from Dunkery Hill west over Chetsford to Lucott Moor and Alderman’s Barrow (all Somerset). Sitters had already noticed losses across mid- and northwest Devon by the end of his Atlas period. These were the consequences of widespread damage (caused, as noted by Richard Archer of RSPB Exeter, by moorland conversion, afforestation and conversion of swards from extensive to intensive) on the poorer soils, and marked the end of a period when Curlew had learnt to exploit such areas. Moorland Curlew apparently enjoyed a brief boost from the loss of lowland sites, but it did not last.

The entry from The Birds of Exmoor and the Quantocks then notes that, by the time of the 1992/93 survey, this range had greatly contracted: the only sightings outside northeast Exmoor were on Swap and Winsford Hills, at Comerslade and Sandyway, and at three or four places along the Molland /Anstey ridge, making a total of perhaps 15 pairs. In the 1990s up to five pairs at least tried to breed in the Dunkery/Chetsford area or on Codsend Moors, and others were seen in summer at Farley Water, and on Withypool Hill, Challacombe Common and the Molland /Anstey ridge. There were two pairs on Porlock Marsh in 2000, but they failed to breed. Further east (round the Quantock Hills) there had probably been none since the 1980s. The years after 2000 saw breeding Curlews slipping into extinction. On the northeast of the Moor, breeding may have been occasionally successful up to at least 2007, and odd birds were seen up to 2012.

Breeders normally arrived on the Moor in March and left at the latest in July or August.

Exmoor Curlew records since 2011
(Devon and Somerset Bird reports and report of the Exmoor Natural History Society)

2011 and 2012: During spring and early summer of 2011 and 2012, an intensive programme of bird survey work was undertaken on mire sites within Exmoor National Park. The survey was carried out by Dave Boyce for RSPB, with funding provided by South West Water as part of their Exmoor Mire Restoration Project. This work aimed to establish the current status of breeding Snipe and Curlew on Exmoor, though data was also gathered on other moorland bird species, especially those such as Grasshopper Warbler and Reed Bunting that often breed in wetland habitats. The conclusions of the report (available on the internet as Exmoor_Mires_Project_bird_survey_2012) were as follows: “While there are still grounds for some optimism in the conservation of Exmoor’s small Snipe populations, it appears that Curlew may already have become extinct as a breeding species here. In both 2011 and 2012, only one possible territory was recorded, with even this appearing to be more likely to relate to non-breeding birds. The decline appears to have been quite rapid, with five territories recorded in the Dunkery area and a further territory on North Molton Ridge being found by the Exmoor Breeding Bird Survey in 2008. There does not appear to have been a concurrent decline in the quality of the habitat at traditional Curlew sites on Exmoor, and it seems more likely that other factors such as predation by foxes and crows, and climate change may be implicated in its disappearance here, as elsewhere across its southern British range.”

2012: Single spring records for Dunkery and Hoar Moor, the latter in a likely breeding area in an abandoned rushy enclosure which has almost reverted to moorland.

2013: None recorded.

2014: Only two records from the RSPB survey. The 2014 Breeding Bird Survey noted single contacts on Dunkery and around Knighton Combe, but the only possibility of breeding success was on North Molton Common. Mike Lock who edits the Devon Bird Report notes that “The last reference to Devon Exmoor that I can find in Devon Bird reports is to a bird in the North Molton Ridge area on 25 April 2014.”

2015: No Exmoor records; single birds at Sampford Point (Blackdown Hills, some way from Exmoor proper) on 9 May and Frog Hill (Quantock Hills) on 11 June, the latter certainly a passage bird.

2016: One bird at Dunkery Hill (Somerset) from 24 April to late July. None in the Devon sector.

2017: A pair on Dunkery Hill from late April to 20 May. None in the Devon sector.

2018: One bird on Dunkery Hill on four dates from early March to early May. None in the Devon sector.

Mike Lock, commenting on the Devon map below, says: “The 2007-2013 Breeding Distribution map gives a very rosy picture. The last chick to fledge on Dartmoor was in 2017 and that was the first since 2009.” And Humphrey Sitters in his Preface to the 2007-13 Atlas made the following prescient comments: “The problems of bird population decline cannot all be addressed at the same time; therefore there should be prioritisation. For example, if the present trend continues, we will lose Curlew as a Devon breeding species within the next few years. If we do, there will no longer be any Curlews that have an attachment to Devon and it will be very difficult to get them back because recolonisation will depend on the settlement of young birds from other (probably still dwindling) populations. Therefore everything possible should be done to prevent Curlew going extinct as a breeding species in Devon and that is a top priority. In contrast, a species that has suffered a more than 90% decline, Grey Partridge, would in all probability be much easier to reintroduce because it is sedentary and its requirements – farmland with headlands untreated with insecticides or herbicides and weedy stubble in winter – are well known. Therefore it is perhaps not such a high priority.”

Given these circumstances, it is all the more regrettable that the proposed head-starting of Curlew chicks in Devon on Dartmoor, planned by the Duchy of Cornwall, the Dartmoor National Park and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust for spring and summer 2020 has had to be suspended because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Devon: Breeding distribution 1977–85

Devon: Breeding distribution 2007–13

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