Curlew Forum Newsletter 4, 23 January 2018

Coombe Hill Meadows (Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust reserve), 14 January 2018 (Andy Jayne).

Introduction (from Mike Smart)

The Curlew Forum Newsletters issued since the “Call of the Curlew” workshop held at the Wetlands and Wildfowl Trust, Slimbridge, on World Wetlands Day, 2 February 2017, have dealt with breeding Curlews in southern England. The Slimbridge workshop brought together groups of enthusiasts, both professionals and volunteers, who have been studying and conserving breeding Curlews in the lowlands of southern England; the outcome of the meeting was a consensus that, against the background of detailed investigations into the breeding behaviour and conservation status of Curlews currently under way in upland areas of Scotland, northern England and Ireland, the remaining relatively small breeding populations in southern England were equally worthy of study and conservation action. As a result, each of these regional groups in southern England contributed reports on the breeding status in their area to the Newsletters, and a ‘Southern Curlews’ website has been set up at ; the website includes the texts of previous Newsletters, references to the major literature on breeding Curlews and a host of other information besides; there is also a section entitled ‘Feedback’ which allows anyone consulting the website to make comments, ask questions or post their thoughts; it hasn’t been very widely used yet, so please feel free to use it!

It should be noted that, while the Curlew Forum is mainly concerned with breeding birds in Southern England, it aims to maintain links with those studying Curlews in other areas. Thus, several Forum members attended the first Irish “Curlews in Crisis” conference in November 2016, and are participating in the preparations for the workshop on the “Status and Future of Curlew in Wales” to be held at the Royal Welsh Agricultural Showground at Builth Wells on 24 January 2018, and for a Scottish Curlew workshop planned on 27 September 2018.  Reports from Ireland and notes on the Welsh workshop feature on the website.

After the end of the 2017 breeding season, a meeting of the Curlew Forum was held at Slimbridge, attended by the Steering Group (Mary Colwell, Geoff Hilton, Phil Sheldrake and Mike Smart) together with representatives of most of the regional groups in southern England, to review the situation after the breeding season. An account of this meeting appears below, together with notes on a variety of mainly policy and administrative matters.  Not much about breeding Curlews out in the wild in this Newsletter, then, but the 2018 breeding season is almost upon us, and future Newsletters will report on the 2018 breeding season as it progresses. I shall be inviting regional representatives of the Forum to contribute notes from their areas, with a view to number 5 of the Newsletter in early spring 2018.


International Wader Study Group Conference, Prague

The regular IWSG meeting in Prague in September 2017 included a one-day workshop on Curlews, attended by several members of the Curlew Forum.  An interim account of the meeting appears on the Southern Curlews website; the official report is in preparation by Natalie Meyer of NABU in Germany (who attended the Slimbridge workshop in February 2017) and will be posted on the website as soon as it becomes available.


Curlew Forum Meeting at Slimbridge

The meeting was held on 11 October 2017, and was timed so that the Forum could brief Geoff Hilton, who represents the Southern Curlew Forum on the official UK and Ireland Curlew Recovery Group, which was to meet the following week. Among the 20 people present were representative of the regional Curlew groups in southern England (from Dartmoor, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Shropshire, Upper Thames Valley, North Wiltshire, Salisbury Plain), together with participants from BTO (British Trust for Ornithology), GWCT (the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust), the Irish Curlew Group, JNCC (Joint National Conservation Committee), Natural England, RSPB and, of course, the Southern Curlews webmaster.

The topics discussed were as follows:

  • Summary review of the 2017 season breeding season (basically a reiteration of the results in southern England, as presented in Newsletter 3).
  • Agreement of Curlew Forum mission statement
  • Communications – Updates & Website (an opportunity for the webmaster to explain the working of the website)
  • “Curlew Country”, a review of the work in Shropshire by Amanda Perkins and Tony Cross; practical measures, successes & failures, tagging and radio-tracking
  • “Head starting”, a presentation by Geoff Hilton on work done by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust on their population recovery work, involving incubation of eggs taken from wild nests, and raising of chicks for release; work currently ongoing on Spoon-billed Sandpiper and Black-tailed Godwit – possibility of extension to Curlew.
  • “Measuring success”; a review of data collection needs; it was to have been presented by Jennifer Smart, who because of an accident could only participate by Skype, but the follow-up work has been led by Phil Sheldrake.

The principal conclusions reached were as follows:

Curlew Forum Mission Statement

“Our goal is to work with farmers and land managers to reverse the current decline, and continue monitoring the status of breeding Curlew across southern England. We will do this by sharing knowledge and experience, raising awareness, offering advice, and securing funding to implement effective conservation measures”.

By way of further background to the Mission Statement, it should be noted that Curlews occur in Britain all year round. There are more in the winter, when numbers are boosted with birds which breed in continental Europe. The Curlew breeding population is in steep decline; most of these are in the uplands, but there are also small breeding populations spread across lowland southern England. These are particularly at risk and the fear is that they will go extinct. Many, if not most, breeding attempts fail during the nest stage because of predation, disturbance, or inadvertent destruction during agricultural activities. The young, as soon as they hatch, are able to feed themselves, but are protected for a further month by at least one parent bird. At this stage too, they are at risk from predators and particularly during grass cutting when they lie flat on the ground, hiding rather than running to avoid the machinery. Once flying, they are relatively safe; the adult survival rate is very good; according to the BTO, the typical lifespan is five years, oldest known bird from ringing 32 years. Taking eggs for artificial incubation, then putting back the chicks or fledglings (known as “head starting”), has been tried, mainly on other wader species, with encouraging results. Although this cannot be the answer in the long term, it can buy time through bolstering the population, whilst conservation work continues on building a self-sustaining and growing population. The Curlew Forum aims to address these issues.


It was thought useful to provide clear definitions, as follows, of certain commonly used terms:

  • “Territorial pair”: a pair of adult Curlews holding territory, often at a traditional breeding site and normally early in the breeding season (March or early April). Important to recognise such birds as potential breeders, either in current or future years; just before the nest is established, courtship chasing is likely to occur.
  • “Passage bird”: a bird on spring migration, on its way to breeding areas further to the north and east, which may occur in breeding sites from February to April, alongside territorial pairs. Important to distinguish them from territorial pairs (often by different behaviour, more likely to flock, less likely to defend territories), so that they are not counted as breeding birds.
  • “Breeding pair” or “Nesting pair”: a pair of adult Curlews with a nest (generally begun in late April or early May) or young (from the very end of May onwards. Important to distinguish breeding adults from any non-breeding birds (either non-breeding adults, or immatures aged one year), in order to make an accurate calculation of the number of breeding pairs.
  • “Head starting”: removing the eggs from a nest and incubating them artificially before returning them to the nest at hatching time. This technique. Used by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust on other wader species, and successfully used in 2017 by the Curlew Country project in Shropshire, avoids egg predation, and produces larger numbers of chicks.

Key information required

It was thought useful to standardise information collection, so that results across southern England may be comparable. The following information is considered necessary for each of the populations in southern England.

  • Population size =   Number of breeding pairs
  • Breeding success = Number of fledglings
  • Productivity =   Number of fledglings per breeding pair
  • Causes of breeding failure:
    • at egg stage: predation; desertion; eggs infertile; damage by agricultural activities
    • at chick stage: predation; disturbance; damage by agricultural activities
  • Factors influencing breeding success:
    • lack of disturbance; protection against predation; sympathetic management by land managers
  • Information on habitat (e.g. height of vegetation round nest)

Phil Sheldrake is drawing up an Excel spreadsheet template to facilitate consistent reporting of fieldwork data. It will list all the information collected on breeding Curlews from the 2018 season onwards against the breeding status of each pair observed. This will allow standardized recording, and comparisons between breeding populations in different areas of southern England. A ‘Curlew amended’ version of the BTO breeding evidence codes is shown below (any comments welcome!), a copy of the Excel sheet will be circulated along with the final version of this to the various regional groups in the Curlew Forum before April.

BTO Breeding evidence codes – curlew.
The most relevant descriptor will indicate under which breeding category an observation should be recorded

Non-breeding (Non)
Single, pair or number of birds flying over
Observed but suspected to be still on migration
Observed but suspected to be summering non-breeder
Possible breeding (Po)
Pair observed in suitable nesting habitat in breeding season on just one occasion (beware double counting)
Male present (or bubbling calls heard) in breeding season in suitable breeding habitat
Probable breeding pair (Pr)
Pair observed in suitable nesting habitat in breeding season on more than one occasion
Permanent territory presumed through registration of territorial behaviour (song etc) on at least two different days a week or more apart at the same place or many individuals on one day
Courtship and display judged to be in or near potential breeding habitat
Pair visiting probable nest site
Agitated behaviour or anxiety calls from adults, suggesting probable presence of nest or young nearby
Pair nest scraping
Confirmed breeding pair (Br)
Used nest or eggshells found
Downy young seen
Adults entering or leaving nest-site in circumstances indicating occupied nest or adults seen incubating – sitting is often followed by lowering of the head (disappearing in tall vegetation) followed by periodic raising and looking around
Nest containing eggs
Nest with young seen or heard
Incubation change-over seen – when approaching the nest curlews appear to ‘move with purpose’, without actively feeding although not necessarily faster or slower than normal

Actions proposed for 2018 breeding season

NB: Conditions will vary from one area to another, and not all areas will have the facilities to carry out all actions mentioned below.  Cooperation and exchange of information between areas, together with good communications, are essential for success.

  • Census of territorial pairs
  • Census of breeding pairs
  • Finding of nests; despite risk of disturbing breeding birds during nest finding, it is considered best to find as many nests as possible, thus permitting better monitoring and conservation measures.
  • Monitoring of nests: clutch size; BTO Nest Record Cards to be completed for all nests found; use of BTO system to identify breeding actions; use of temperature loggers (unobtrusive, allows exact calculation of timing of any nest failure); weighing of eggs – for which a licence will be required – (use of digital balance essential; allows precise calculation of hatching date; no need for additional nest visits); recording of reason for any nest failure.
  • Protection of nests: use of electric fencing, when nest is found, to deter predators.
  • Head starting: use of this technique, the hatchlings either being returned to the parents’ nest, or released without reference to the parents.
  • Monitoring of hatching: number of eggs hatched; use of radio tags so that chicks can be followed and relocated; number of chicks fledged; recording of reason for any loss of chicks.


Workshop on ‘Status and Future of the Curlew in Wales’

At the invitation of Natural Resources Wales, the Welsh Ornithological Society, Curlew Media, Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust Cymru, RSPB Cymru and Ecology Matters Trust are organizing a workshop at the Royal Welsh Agricultural Showground in Builth Wells on 24 January 2018. The agenda involves sections on ‘Setting the Scene’, on ‘Curlew Conservation’ (which will include reports from Ireland, from the Curlew Country project in Shropshire and the Welsh Marches, and from the Curlew Forum), followed by a broad discussion on ‘Learning from Experience to deliver Success’ which will examine the questions: What do we need to initiate a programme for recovery? And What are the key themes emerging, and what are the solutions/ programmes of work? Over 100 participants are expected from all aspects of Curlew conservation: not just conservationists, but farmers and land managers, gamekeepers and Sheep farming specialists. We hope to include reports on the workshop on the Southern Curlew Forum website and in future Newsletters.

Curlew cake baked for the Welsh workshop


Westminster Hall Debate on Lowland Curlews

Hard upon the heels of the meeting of the Forum in Slimbridge, the Curlew Forum learnt – with enormous surprise and considerable satisfaction – that a Westminster Hall debate was to be held on Tuesday 17 October on the topic of ‘Lowland Curlews’. (Westminster Hall debates are held – as the name suggests! – when an MP asks for a short debate on a specific topic, and there is not time or space in the main debating chamber of the House of Commons; and the responsible Minister has to attend to respond to the debate). So Mary Colwell and Mike Smart dashed off to Westminster to listen to the debate from the public gallery, along with observers from RSPB and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust.

In this instance the debate had been requested by the MP for Newbury, Mr Richard Beynon, who had been Parliamentary Under Secretary State for the Environment from 2010 to 2013. Mr Beynon was concerned at the loss of breeding Curlews from the Berkshire Downs, in his area. (The full Hansard account of the debate has been published in the ‘News’ section of the website.) In his speech Mr Benyon emphasized the failure of breeding Curlews to produce chicks, which he attributed to lack of predator control. In reply, Dr Thérèse Coffey, the current Parliamentary Under Secretary of State outlined measures being taken both by official bodies, and non-governmental organizations, notably RSPB, for breeding Curlews in the UK. After the debate Dr Coffey spoke briefly to the four observers, and asked what – if they had a magic wand – they would do for lowland Curlews: basing their response on the discussions at the Curlew Forum a few days previously, they replied with a four-point plan: better monitoring; fencing of nests against predators and mowing accidents; more support for farmers; and head starting. Mary Colwell and Mike Smart followed this up with an email letter to Dr Coffey, setting out this plan in more detail. Several other members of the Curlew Forum approached their own MPs, asking them to intervene on the topic. Sadly, the response to the message was a catalogue of disasters: the message got lost for some time in cyberspace, and a response, as follows, was received only just before Christmas:

“As the Minister said in her speech, the Government recognises that curlews have declined significantly and we are committed to halting the decline of these iconic birds. In order to deliver this, a range of actions are required, such as protecting important sites, working with farmers and other land managers to manage these habitats carefully and effective predator control.

You are aware of two of the projects Natural England is funding: the Shropshire-based Curlew Country project and the RSPB Action for Birds in England partnership. In addition to these projects, the UK is a signatory to the African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement and is committed to the international conservation plan for curlews. The long-term goal of this plan is to restore the favourable conservation status of the Eurasian Curlew with the aim of an assessment of Least Concern against IUCN Red List criteria by 2025.

We also have agri-environment schemes that have been designed with the aim of encouraging habitat management to promote conservation in targeted areas. Around 600,000 hectares from the predecessor schemes are managed for wading birds and since 2016 Countryside Stewardship has provided 10,000 hectares under the new schemes.

Thank you for taking the time to send in your suggestions on a four point approach for lowland curlews. Unfortunately the Minister is unable to take up your kind offer to meet and discuss this in further detail at this time. I have of course shared your suggestions with the relevant policy officials in Defra and would like to assure you that the Government remains committed to being the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we inherited it.”

The response was thought disappointing, concentrating on existing plans for upland Curlews, and failing to address the specific problems of lowland English Curlews. We intend to go back to DEFRA, to press the points originally raised with officials.


BTO Dilys Breese Medal

Photo © Nick Caro

In October 2017, the BTO awarded its Dilys Breese Medal to Mary Colwell. The medal is awarded annually to an outstanding communicator who has opened up science and nature to new audiences. Dilys Breese was a BBC producer with strong links to the BTO, so the presentation to Mary Colwell was very appropriate.

Emma Douglas, Head of Fundraising at the BTO, commented:

“The Dilys Breese Medal, created in memory of and named after the great natural history broadcaster, was made possible thanks to a gift in her Will.  We are delighted to acknowledge Mary’s amazing support by presenting her with this prestigious award, guaranteeing that Dilys’s legacy lives on through people like Mary, who are determined to communicate the importance of birds and the science of ornithology to everyone.  We are incredibly grateful to Mary for raising the profile of BTO and for choosing BTO’s Curlew Appeal as a beneficiary of the funds raised from her epic fundraising trek.”

Congratulations to Mary, whose new book ‘Curlew Moon’ is published by Harper Collins on 19 April.


World Curlew Day

Plans are in hand to declare 21 April as World Curlew Day.  This will raise awareness of curlews worldwide and focus attention on their plight. Out of the 8 species of curlew in the world, 2 are already thought to be extinct (Eskimo and slender-billed) and the other 6 are endangered. This date has been chosen for two reasons: it is the average first laying date in Europe, and it is St Beuno’s Day – St Beuno being a Welsh saint and the first curlew conservationist. Legend has it that his religious text was saved from the waves by a Curlew and so he deemed they should always be protected. Please support World Curlew Day by organising an activity and let us know so that we can post information and inspire others: a Curlew Watch? a Curlew Coffee Morning? a Curlew Talk? All can raise money for projects.

The logo is being finalised but here is a sneaky preview of work in progress:

Scottish Curlew Workshop

The Curlew Workshops are proving to be very productive and really getting action on the ground. The Irish Workshop produced the Curlew Task Force, the Southern England Workshop resulted in the Curlew Forum. What will Wales do?  On 27 September 2018 the Scottish Workshop will take place in a venue yet to be confirmed.  Watch this space.


Plans for the 2018 breeding season in the Severn and Avon Vales

Building on the outcomes of the October 2017 meeting of the Curlew Forum (see above), we are making plans in Gloucestershire and Worcestershire for the 2018 Curlew breeding season. We are anxious to move on from simply monitoring the situation (which a pessimist might describe as ‘monitoring extinction’) to a more active engagement in conservation of existing breeding Curlew sites.  In Gloucestershire, we hope to implement at least part of the four-point plan (better monitoring, use of electric fencing round nests, working with farmers and land-owners; and if possible, head-starting). These activities will be based on observations in previous years, and in particular a growing understanding of the extreme site-fidelity of Curlews, so that we can predict with some confidence which fields they will use for nesting. Arrangements are in hand to mist-net and colour-ring breeding Curlews before the breeding season starts, so that individual breeding birds can be recognised, with the support of the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust. And the Gloucestershire Naturalists’ Society has offered a sizeable grant to cover the costs, with a view to conserving not just the birds themselves, but their floodplain meadow habitats, hence the title of the project ‘Curlew meadows’.

The Worcestershire Wildlife Trust have supported efforts to improve monitoring this year, and it is planned to extend the monitoring from sites in the Severn and Avon Vales to other sites on higher ground (more like the sites found in Shropshire by the Curlew Country project, where small populations of nesting Curlews are still just hanging on. The Worcestershire Wildlife Trust too is keen not simply to monitor, but also to take action to conserve the birds and their habitats.

It has recently been announced that a Facilitation Fund project has been approved for the Severn Vale under the title ‘Severn Guardians’, with the participation of a large number of Severn Vale farmers, and administered by South West FWAG (Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group) and the Wetlands and Wildfowl Trust. The project will bring together farmers and wildlife experts, allowing them to discuss and implement measures for conservation of Curlews and their riverside habitats.

Mike Smart (Gloucestershire)
Ian Duncan (Worcestershire)


And finally, something about Curlews in the field

Coombe Hill GWT reserve, Gloucestershire (Andy Jayne)

In darkest midwinter, the Severn Vale fulfils its function as a floodplain (see Andy Jayne’s picture of Coombe Hill at the head of this newsletter and above).  These pictures show areas which are breeding sites for Curlews in the summer months, but look highly unsuitable for breeding Curlews right now.

Breeding Curlews from the Severn Vale leave their hay meadow breeding grounds in late June or July, and spend the winter at coastal sites such as the Severn estuary.  They are very rarely observed inland between August and the beginning of spring. Autumn 2017 had been very dry in the Severn Vale, with no flooding and very little surface water until the snowfall round 10 December.  From mid-December and especially after the second snowfall on Boxing Day, flooding in all the riverside meadows became quite extensive, and was fairly deep in the first week of January.,

It was therefore something of a surprise to find the first Curlew of the year on the early date of 5 January on the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust reserve at Coombe Hill; what appears to be the same bird has been seen there again almost daily until 21 January. The meadows were clearly far from the state in which the bird might be nesting, yet it returned this early.  The bird in fact went to sleep on one of the small areas of grass emerging from the flood, then went to feed at the edge of the floodwater, clearly catching earthworms as it probed with its long beak. It is likely to have been a male, returning early to claim its traditional territory; but it was one of those birds with a medium-length bill, so not possible to be sure.

By way of comparison: in 2015, the first of the year had been a bird feeding actively around the edge of the flood on 31 January; in 2016 the first bird was heard over the Severn Ham at Tewkesbury on 23 January, then one was seen at Coombe Hill on 30 January (also in conditions of high flood); in 2017 (a year of limited flooding) the earliest bird was noted at Coombe Hill on 4 February, but was thought to be a migrant, as it didn’t stay.

So the nesting Curlews are back already; time for action!

Mike Smart

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