Curlew Country – Report back from the International Wader Study Conference in Prague

By Amanda Perkins, Curlew Country Project Manager,

Part 1 – An invitation to visit Prague

In the middle of September Tony Cross, the project’s Consultant Ornithologist, and I were privileged to attend the International Wader Study Group Conference in Prague.  A workshop on the plight of curlew had been organised as part of the event and we had been encouraged to make a presentation about the Curlew Country project.  When I told Tony about the requests to make a presentation, he said that we should not do it because the presentations were generally very academically inclined. As most other research is being led by scientists (often university based) he felt that we were not up to that standard of presentation.  In addition the request for presentations to be submitted was sent out in the middle of the curlew nesting season when we had other priorities.

Courtesy of Astrid Kant, Netherlands, new correspondent met in Prague

Time went on and when requests for our participation were repeated, I expressed our reservations, but other national project partners felt that it was worthwhile having a contribution from a different sort of project.  In the end we sent in our presentation very last minute, with the caveat that it could be used or not to suit the organisers and we would be attending the conference to participate at whatever level.

Our last minute entry was certainly rather a light presentation in comparison to the many impressive and detailed reports, detailing fantastic work being done around the globe to attempt to reverse the dramatic decline in so many wader species.

There were presentations on breeding, migration and stopovers, foraging and ringing.  Some dedicated scientists have been studying waders for 20 years to gather important medium term data that could help secure a future for them.  The UK was well represented.  Jen Smart, RSPB, delivered an excellent plenary session to the workshop day (which had three parallel workshops running – one on lapwing which we were sorry not to be able to attend) about work undertaken to manipulate and manage habitat for enhanced wader breeding success.  On curlew Rachel Taylor, BTO gave a fascinating presentation on her ground-breaking work in north Wales where she has been GPS tagging curlew to assess use of their foraging sites. Irene Tomankova gave an overview of the work that the RSBP are doing on curlew recovery in upland areas, and we talked about our project more relevant to the non-high ground of the UK.  There was feedback from the Lapwing Workshop that GWCT had delivered some good presentations on lapwing too, and then later on the inspirational black tailed godwit headstarting work, being led by WWT in collaboration with the RSPB, was presented.

Courtesy of Astrid Kant

Across Germany, Poland, the Netherlands, France, Estonia, Spain, The Czech Republic, Russia, Sweden, Ireland and Tunisia a number of good projects are trying to reverse curlew and lapwing decline and are leading the field in several areas.   The habitat varies, but the over-riding problems are often the same.  There were some notable success stories mainly among other species and sadly generally on a small scale, but even so an informed, active and capable bunch of people passionate about reversing wader fortunes are not managing to  recover sustainable populations. Human demands are placed higher than those of other species worldwide and battling this seems almost impossible.  Commercial and populist pressures for increasing amounts of ever cheaper food limiting farmers’ capacity to deliver alternatives seem unbeatable, if environmental outcomes cannot be sustainably funded on a longer term basis than most current agri-environment schemes.

As a relative newcomer to this work, I was surprised at how similar the problems for lapwing and curlew are throughout Europe and at how widely predation is a problem and also at the limited amount of work to intervene to protect waders from predators.  Whilst most people agree on the main predators of eggs at nest stage, there is much more limited knowledge about the major causes of chick predation in many projects like our own.  A report came back from the lapwing workshop that one of the presenters had said that he had been attending wader events for 40 years where people had been discussing wader decline and not got any further forward.  It was re-assuring that the most successful projects seemed to be those that worked closely with farming communities of over long periods of time undertaking comprehensive research allied to intervention work.  Inevitably funding is an issue for most projects.

The Curlew Workshop closed with a session organised and chaired by Natalie Meyer from NABU in Germany, who pioneered the trial temporary electric fencing around curlew nests that has helped chicks to hatch successfully in our project this year.  The intention is to form an action plan for improved collaboration, knowledge sharing, and perhaps research, and trialling between various international projects.  Yet again this can only happen if funds are found for someone to fulfil this essential role.

Courtesy of Astrid Kant

Needless to say, Tony and I felt it important to have a team meeting in the old city centre and then on another occasion I walked around similar streets, lit by lamps at night, with three fellow delegates that I had not previously been acquainted with, so glad that I had not taken the initially more appealing option of an early night.  It is much hyped, but for me the centre of Prague was magical and did not disappoint.

So where does Curlew Country fit into the international picture?

We did not know what to expect and wondered if we would seem rather small and insignificant in comparison to other projects.  In fact it was helpful to know that we are at a similar stage to other projects, many of which have been going for longer than we have, but like us no-one yet has the fool proof solution to reversing population decline.

In some ways the conference left many questions un-answered.  For example our methods of tracking chicks are limited.  Radio tagging is tricky so can only be performed by highly qualified ringers and then so many radio tags seem to be lost with their chicks within a very short space of time.  In addition the tags are designed to fall off before a chick fledges, so accurate sightings and data on birds at the point of fledging becomes even more difficult.  I will discuss some of the matters that we continue to ponder in the next part.


Part 2 – So much to think about and solutions urgently needed

Following our trip to the International Wader Study Group Conference in Prague, my mind has been buzzing with all the interesting things that I learnt, but also in frustration about the limitations to recovering the international curlew population.  The Curlew Country project was set up to recover our local population, but it has become increasingly clear that at a national level our findings and practice are significant for non-upland and moorland curlew and we now also know that it may be helpful for us to feedback information into the international picture and in return we will benefit from the knowledge and experience of others.

have summarised some of the over-riding themes from discussion sessions and presentations at the conference and added in a few of my own un-answered questions:

Photo by AV Cross

Where are all the curlew?

Most of the projects had comparatively small numbers of breeding birds.  Some European projects only had groups of as few as 25 breeding pairs to work with.  We need to hope that many curlew are concealing themselves from human interference in vast unspoiled habitat expanses in Russia.  Whatever the answer, efforts to save this species are very much a race against time.

Why do we fail to co-ordinate better at a national and international level?

I asked a scientific colleague involved in exceptional ornithological work if academic ownership posed a problem for greater collaboration?  He said that he did not think so, in which case the barrier must be one of resources.

  • Everyone is spending valuable time away from core wader work trying to get money to fund their research.
  • No-one is really clear if the research and effort overlaps because there is insufficient funding to keep a flow of information going. The extent of this work is often under-estimated and just tagged onto other roles whose incumbents often do not have the time needed for the additional work and it can never be prioritised.  In the UK the efforts of Mary Colwell Hector and the Southern Curlew Forum she helped to form (all voluntary) at Slimbridge is aiming to address the problem for the non-moorland and upland curlew population, but only with the help of Mike Smart an experienced and dedicated retired ornithologist able and willing to commit substantial amounts of time to achieving this.

    Slimbridge Conference

  • Then there is the matter of large established organisations keen to sustain the organisation and sometimes with other agendas other than pure effort to save curlew.
  • The scale of the project can also matter. Large well established organisations are better placed to attract resources with the help of publicity and fundraising departments and also have the resources to remain well-connected at a crucial level of operation.  Competition for resources, sometimes including membership can influence decisions that may not deliver the best outcomes for a species.
  • A large organisation running a project in a defined geological area can unintentionally attract national funding that hampers the efforts of other projects outside that geographical area.
  • The scientists and specialists would rightly say that ‘field’ conditions and factors can differ greatly. However, in the case of curlew or indeed waders when so many of the factors limiting success are the same, could greater collaboration maximise the use of resources and success?
  • In part 1 of the blog, I spoke about the difficulty of tagging chicks. In these days of super technology no doubt a tiny tag that could signal the whereabouts of a chick over longer distances and without the need to catch it to download data would be possible, but is probably just prohibitively expensive.

Habitat v Predation control

  • There is general agreement that work at a landscape scale will produce the best outcomes. Some projects aim to achieve a return to less intensive food production methods at landscape scale, but remain uncertain as to how to achieve this.
  • Others feel that it would be more pragmatic to accept that the production of cheap food is irreversible, but provision for wildlife must be made and realistically supported.

    Fox approaching nest to predate eggs

  • Most people believe that agri-environment schemes do not achieve the environmental outcomes intended, but only in fact contribute to the production of cheap food. There seemed to be general agreement too that they are too short for the long term requirement of good habitat management, not outcome based and that generally the ‘one size fits all’ nature of these arrangements does not work.
  • Those allied to the hope of less intensive farming methods believe that predation would not then be a problem as the eco-system would re-balance to a time when the land was less intensively used. Others are sceptical of what the baseline for such a balance is.
  • There were some good presentations that demonstrated work done on reserves to manage habitat so that it provides a food source for predators drawing them away from ground nesting bird areas. This has yet to be translated to a non-reserve situation.
  • Others believe that a landscape less intensively and mechanically farmed was also more peopled and that generally there would have been much more predation control and whilst there will be no return to widespread extensively farmed landscapes predation control methods could and should be re-introduced.

    Young curlew chick being radio tagged

Long term sustainability

The matter of long-term sustainability of curlew populations on non-upland farms seemed an elusive subject that could not be visited because the priority has to be to save curlew now.   No-one even attempted to answer the question of how longer term sustainability could be achieved.   Farmers are keen to help, but cannot always find nests to protect them.  Agri-environment schemes are so short term and ever-changing that farmers are put off engaging with them.  There is a danger that if funding can be found for short-term solutions to reverse curlew decline, there could be a return to decline if longer term plans are not firmly in place.  It is important that work is done on short-term recovery whilst looking at the nuances of longer term solutions at the same time.  Different projects may be able to undertake different research.

Is it worth trying to save curlew when there are so many difficulties?

This is an iconic species beloved by many.  Curlew Country was formed on the basis that the local community widely signalled the wish to save its curlew population and the project is now also persisting on the basis of hearing similar voices from further afield, nationally and internationally.  We don’t know if we can save curlew outside managed moorland, reserves and wild spaces not suffering detrimental human impact.  However we believe that it would be unacceptable to discover that we had lost curlew without trying to save them.

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