NEWSLETTER 7 – SEPTEMBER 2019
The Curlew Forum Newsletter aims to connect and inform the various groups working on Curlews throughout lowland and southern Britain. Our website, www.curlewcall.org, has previous issues as well as useful information and literature.
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 lowland and southern Britain. We will do this by sharing knowledge and experience, raising awareness, offering advice, and securing funding to implement effective conservation measures”.
In this Newsletter
- The 2018 breeding season
- Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust ‘Severn Curlew Project’
- Downing Street Curlew Summit, July 2019
- Curlew hunting in France
- Tribute to Hermann Hötker
We have to begin with an apology for the very late appearance of the current Newsletter. It is not for lack of activity relating to Curlews by members of the Curlew Forum; on the contrary, all of us have been so busy in the field that reporting has suffered. Please forgive us! We will try to do better in future.
This issue begins with a review of the 2018 season – last year, not the current year: 2019 will come in the next issue of the Newsletter, following a meeting of the Curlew Forum to be held in November. The document was drawn together by Phil Sheldrake after the Curlew Forum meeting in November 2018 at Slimbridge. For the first time, it adopts uniform recording methods across areas of lowland England where the Curlew Forum is active, and confirms just how few breeding pairs survive, and how low is the rate of success rate in producing chicks – 258 pairs produced only 40 chicks. Many thanks to Phil and to the many fieldworkers who provided the data.
The second item deals with the new ‘Severn Curlew Project’ established at Slimbridge in spring of 2019 by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust. The project continues and intensifies the work in the Severn and Avon Vales carried out by volunteers from Gloucestershire and Worcestershire for many years: it identifies and monitors the success of the 30 or 40 breeding pairs in the vales, and continues the work of liaison with local landowners and farmers on whose land the Curlews breed; the exciting new element is that the project includes ‘head-starting’ – taking eggs from wild birds, incubating the eggs, then releasing the chicks into wild populations. Eggs were taken from nests on East Anglian airfields, where they would otherwise have been destroyed under licence to prevent damage to aircraft from bird-strikes; a total of 50 young have been released at Slimbridge this year; it is hoped to make similar releases in future years.
Item three deals with a major event in July 2019 – the Downing Street summit on lowland Curlews. The meeting was hosted by Lord John Randall, Teresa May’s environment advisor, and chaired by Mary Colwell. The main reason for the summit was to inform the species champions in the UK and Scottish parliaments and the Welsh Assembly, and the national agencies about the serious situation facing Curlews across the UK. The discussion will help inform the new Environmental Land Management scheme and the meeting highlighted the importance of flexible and targeted agri-environment schemes to help Curlews. An article summarising the meeting is published in the September 2019 edition of “British Birds”.
A fourth major issue is the issue of hunting of Curlews in France. Curlews remain on the list of potential quarry species in France, and a hunting moratorium was in place from 2008 until 2012; in the 2018/19 hunting season, 6,000 Curlews were shot in France; the French Ecology Ministry initially approved a continuation of hunting in 2019/2020 but, following an application to the French Council of State (the French equivalent of the Supreme Court) by the French League for Protection of Birds (the French BirdLife partner), the hunting season in the coming winter has been suspended. A detailed note on this issue (prepared in consultation with the League) has already been posted on the Curlewcall website.
The final item is a sad one: Dr Hermann Hötker, for many years the head of the NABU Michael Otto Institute in Bergenhusen, Schleswig-Holstein, has recently died. Hermann, a lifelong wader enthusiast who had previously worked at the famous Rieselfelder wader ringing station at Münster near the Rhine, worked tirelessly for waders in north Germany, and was instrumental in promoting the work on Curlews by Natalie Meyer, who spoke at the 2017 Slimbridge workshop on “Call of the Curlew”.
Tributes will be paid to Hermann at the 2019 meeting of the International Wader Study Group, to be held in Morecombe Bay, in northwest England, from 20-23 September. Curlew specialists from many countries will be attending the meeting, and will also be reflecting on the latest findings about breeding Curlews and their conservation.
The 2018 breeding season
By Phil Sheldrake
For the first time we have been able to bring together Curlew breeding season records from across the whole of southern England. Whilst they don’t make for particularly happy reading, they very clearly reflect the huge effort and dedication of all those involved in surveying and monitoring this wonderful bird.
Using a standardised approach to categorising breeding status (based on the BTO Breeding Evidence Codes), area project leads have collated records which we have then brought together on a master spreadsheet. Data for each pair not only include breeding outcomes, but also information on nest locations, habitat, and interventions. The spreadsheet format allows us to filter out results to specific questions, e.g. how many nests failed at egg stage? Or, how many pairs were recorded on designated sites?
This is of huge value in giving us the knowledge which underpins advocacy for action on Curlews. It highlights where we need more information and what we need to do to get it, it can inform conservation science, it helps us raise awareness, it is evidence that we need in order to persuade others to support our work as conservationists.
The table below shows the stark reality of the 2018 season: 258 pairs recorded in total, of which 109 were confirmed as breeding. Of these, 47 nests were known to have failed at egg stage, and 40 successfully hatching. Fourteen failed at chick stage and just six chicks (from three nests) were confirmed as fledged. It is widely accepted that those pairs recorded as ‘probable’ would have attempted breeding; the challenge is clearly there to confirm this, and of course, the real challenge comes with monitoring chick survival!
A request – We will now start compiling the records from the 2019 season – please send your records to your local project lead if you have not already done so!
P.S. from Worcestershire: At one of the nests marked in the tables as ‘unknown outcome’, two chicks were colour-ringed at an age of about 14 days, but were not seen again at the breeding site, so were assumed to have failed. However one of the chicks was seen, and its colour ring read, in Cornwall in April 2019, so at least one chick fledged from Worcestershire.
P.P.S. At the Curlew Forum meeting in November 2018, Craig Ralston, Senior Reserve Manager of the Lower Derwent Valley National Nature Reserve, spoke of the reserve’s experience in conserving breeding Curlews. While this reserve in Yorkshire can scarcely be considered as being in southern England, it is certainly a lowland site. Craig illustrated how control of land management techniques over a large area can improve breeding success. In 2018, a total of 69 pairs of Curlews were present during the breeding season; at least 20 of these pairs bred successfully – with 46 chicks fledged from those pairs. Other lowland sites in southern England clearly have a lot to learn from the Lower Derwent.
The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust ‘Severn Curlew Project’
by Mike Smart
The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) has from the outset been closely linked with the Curlew Forum. The ‘Call of the Curlew’ workshop in February 2017, from which the Curlew Forum developed, was hosted at Slimbridge, later meetings of the Curlew Forum have been held at Slimbridge and Dr Geoff Hilton, WWT Head of Conservation Evidence, is one of the members of the Forum Steering Committee. It was therefore natural for WWT to decide to set up its ‘Severn Curlew Project’, beginning in spring 2019, initially for one year, but with the hope of future extensions. Funding for the project was provided from WWT core funds, from an appeal to WWT Members in autumn 2018, from Natural England, and from the Ministry of Defence.
The project has three main aims:
- to monitor breeding Curlew along the Severn and Avon Vales, just upstream of Slimbridge;
- to work with farmers and landowners, and with local communities in the breeding area, to find ways to support the Curlew populations ; and
- to ‘head-start’ young Curlews, using WWT’s long-established expertise in aviculture; (head-starting means taking eggs from wild nests, hatching the eggs in incubators, then releasing the chicks with the aim of strengthening local breeding populations which often fail to fledge many chicks).
The monitoring of breeding birds continued the work carried out by a voluntary team in previous years, on which reports have appeared in previous numbers of the Newsletter. This previous work provided a valuable template for nest searches, given the known site fidelity of breeding Curlews; volunteers from previous years (notably from GNS – the Gloucestershire Naturalists’ Society) continued to make a valuable contribution. In addition to the surveys in the river valleys, the Worcester Curlew Group (in conjunction with the Worcestershire Wildlife Trust) surveyed Curlew nesting sites on higher ground between the two rivers. Some 35-36 pairs were located in the vales, with between nine and 19 nests along the Severn, and 11 to 16 nests along the Avon. Despite the use of pick-up trucks with high cabs, allowing a better overview of nesting fields, only six nests were found, five of which failed, either because of predation or flooding. An experiment was carried out to look for nests using infrared cameras on drones but, though promising, the results were inconclusive; another attempt is needed next year. Two chicks were ringed from the surviving nest, and both fledged successfully, since they were seen some miles from the nest site. Once again, weather conditions conspired to prevent successful chick raising in some sites: there was a short but damaging flood on both rivers in mid-June which flooded some nests, though in several cases the adult birds led their young onto the higher flood-bank, where they seem to have survived; a provisional figure is advanced of at least eight chicks fledged from the 35 pairs. Attention was also paid to the botany of the hay meadows, in collaboration with Natural England, GNS and the Floodplain Meadows Partnership; many of the meadows offer outstanding examples of unchanged natural grassland, whose richness has hardly been recognised in the past, and it is hoped that conservation recognition and status may be given to the very extensive expanses of herb-rich meadows.
The WWT and Worcester Curlew Group monitoring teams both worked closely with the farmers and land-owners on whose land the Curlews were nesting, often through the good offices of the ‘Severn Guardians’ Facilitation Fund, managed by the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group. Nearly all the farmers approached welcomed the presence of Curlews on their land, and many made changes to their farming practices to accommodate the Curlews, sometimes delaying hay cutting, sometimes leaving areas of hay uncut as a refuge for the chicks, and allowing the project staff to drive their pick-ups through the hay meadows. In the future it will be important to extend this cooperation, to develop an ‘early warning’ system to alert farmers to the presence of nesting Curlews; plus of course (as discussed at the Downing Street Curlew summit) to arrange for a better system of agricultural support to reward farmers who look after their nesting birds.
The head-starting part of the work was carried out at Slimbridge by the WWT Conservation Breeding Team, led by Nigel Jarrett, who have previous experience of the technique with other waders, the critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper from eastern Asia, and in the Fens of eastern England with the Black-tailed Godwit – not to mention Cranes. The technique involves taking eggs from wild birds, raising the eggs in an incubator, rearing the chicks in aviaries and releasing the birds into the wild around the point of fledging. This year’s work with Curlews was a first ever attempt, so the team took great care to get things right, and to avoid any problems with infection from other birds or with interference by predators. It was also crucial to arrange the release with care, as young birds home back to the place of release, navigating by the star patterns they see in their first days of life. The eggs were taken from nests on East Anglian airfields, which would otherwise have been destroyed (under licence) to prevent bird-strikes, so there was no question of affecting wild birds which might have raised their own chicks. It had originally been intended to release some of the head-started birds in the Severn or Avon Vales, alongside wild nesting Curlews; this was in the end not done this year, because of concern for the well-being of the birds (the ‘precautionary principle’), and all were released on the reserve at Slimbridge, many within the fox-proof fence. A total of 50 birds were raised from 62 eggs, and all have been released around Slimbridge; some have been observed mingling with wild Curlews on the nearby Severn estuary. All are marked with colour rings, a yellow ring on the right tibia and a white ring carrying a numbered code from 01 to 99 on the left tibia. All Curlew observers are strongly encouraged to look out for such ringed birds, especially anywhere in southwest England or Ireland, and to report them back to firstname.lastname@example.org,uk (see attached poster with a photograph of a ringed head-started juvenile). A pair of wild Curlews successfully raised chicks on the reserve at Slimbridge in 2019 (after a failed attempt in 2018) and this represents the first successful breeding in the area within living memory. It is hoped that the head-started birds will return, perhaps in two years, to strengthen this breeding population.
With greater experience, it is hoped in future years to release birds in Curlew breeding habitat elsewhere in the Vales, and indeed to share the knowledge and experience of head-starting with other local groups in southern lowland England. Head-starting is not seen as a long-term solution to conserving lowland breeding Curlews in southern England; it is a temporary measure to gain time, while measures are taken to improve conditions on the nesting-grounds.
The Downing Street Curlew Summit
The final statement was as follows:
Statement from the Curlew Summit, 8 July 2019
A meeting to discuss the pressing conservation issues facing breeding Curlew in the UK was held at No. 10 Downing Street on 8 July 2019. It was attended by representatives of conservation non-government organisations, game and land-owning interests, as well as ornithologists closely involved with Curlew conservation issues. Its aim was to brief Lord John Randall and the three Parliamentary Curlew Champions: Jake Berry MP, Lewis Macdonald MSP and Mark Isherwood AM, as well as those representing government departments and statutory conservation agencies for England, Wales and Scotland. This statement reflects key points from the discussion which cannot be taken as necessarily reflecting the views of all those represented.
- Addressing and reversing the causes of Curlew declines is imperative because of:
- the species’ cultural importance to people;
- its role as an ecological umbrella species;
- our obligations to fulfil country, UK and international legal requirements.
Population modelling shows that in large parts of the UK, extinction is likely within one to two decades if current trends continue.
- A good start has been made with current initiatives, but typically these are:
- too small and localised;
- unfunded or lacking medium-term funding security;
- Curlew breeding success is impacted by multiple issues, the importance of which vary Some are particularly severe and widespread. These are principally:
- predation of nests and young;
- mortality during grass rolling, harrowing and cutting;
- upland afforestation;
- recreational disturbance (especially from dog-walking);
- changes to grazing regimes;
- land abandonment.
These multiple causes often interact.
- The impact of re-opening shooting in France during the non-breeding season will impact British breeding Curlew with high certainty. For example, we know that Curlew from both Shropshire and the New Forest over-winter in France.
Conservation measures needed
- Close engagement with the farming and land-owning community is critical in order to share ownership of the issues and co-create solutions for Curlew. This needs actions at all scales from local to national. Working with farmers on Curlew conservation will also give multiple other benefits to other ground-nesting birds, wildflowers and insects and potentially create a template for improved partnership between farmers and conservationists.
- Effective agri-environment and other land-management schemes that fund and deliver necessary measures are critical for Curlew conservation. These schemes need to be effective, flexible and targeted and learn from existing initiatives. Effective land management schemes will:
- provide adequate compensation for Curlew-friendly grassland management;
- provide adequate compensation for intervention measures to increase hatching and fledging success across all habitats including arable, grassland and semi-natural;
- monitor effectiveness and outcomes as a critical element that allows progressive adaptation of measures;
- have adequate funding for advisors to promote and encourage local uptake;
- build on the successful ‘farmer cluster’ model;
- focus actions in target areas (for example clusters of farmers working with local conservation groups and volunteers) to develop and refine knowledge of effective actions that can be implemented more widely. Identification of these target areas being a priority;
- provide funding for both predator deterrence and legal and targeted predator control by well-trained practitioners using best practise methods at a sufficiently wide scale and be undertaken in conjunction with Curlew-friendly grassland management.
- Ambitious, long-term and collaborative research to understand the reasons why predators are so abundant, and to identify landscape-management solutions to the problem. A number of solutions to unsustainable predation rates are available, including lethal predator control, but most suffer from some combination of high cost, difficulty, or controversy. At the same time, high generalist predator abundance is a pervasive problem for British wildlife.
- ‘Head-starting’ (e. artificially incubating eggs and subsequently releasing fledglings) may be necessary to sustain local populations until land management and predation issues are addressed. Similarly, headstarting can be used to return populations to areas where they have been lost. However, this is costly and does not resolve the underlying problems. Accordingly, it is essential that head-starting integrates with broader Curlew recovery planning. National co-ordination of headstarting initiatives to ensure best practice, shared learning, use of resources (including available eggs) and reporting would be beneficial.
- Targeted surveys in identified hotspots is essential to provide baseline data for conservation measures. A full national survey would provide valuable information for targeting land management schemes and would also be valuable in helping raise the public profile of Curlew conservation needs. However, resourcing such a survey should not be at the expense of practical conservation actions.
- It will be critical to monitor the effectiveness of management measures so these can be progressively adapted. Local volunteers can assist with monitoring but support, co-ordination and training must be financially supported. Knowledge of remnant populations in south England is good thanks to efforts of several local conservation groups with substantial volunteer input. However, knowledge of breeding success and numbers away from these areas is much more limited although good in a few areas.
- There are no designated internationally important sites for breeding Curlew despite the North Pennines being proposed as a Special Protection Areas for the species in 2001. Statutory site protection will aid conservation actions at this site. The need for further SPAs has been recognised elsewhere, especially in Scotland, and identification, designation and management of core breeding areas needs to be urgently progressed.
- Co-ordination across the four countries of the UK is necessary to ensure co-ordination of policies; exchange of information; and collective ‘learning by doing’. Co-ordination should be:
- adequately resourced;
- inclusive of relevant stakeholders;
- exploit the significant resources and knowledge that the non-government sector can contribute;
- share best practice in design, monitoring and adaptation of agri-environment schemes and other measures;
- co-ordinate priority research;
- co-ordinate outreach and public awareness – especially with the farming community and in respect to predation control;
- representative of all 4 countries, possibly with a rotating chair that is serviced by a neutral advisory body such as JNCC. This structure is under discussion.
Co-ordination structures previously used for issues such as raptors and lead shot in wetlands could provide useful models. ‘Top-down’ co-ordination needs to be supplemented by ‘bottom-up’ input.
- Actions for Curlew will directly benefit multiple other species and generate conservation recovery methods applicable in other situations. Collectively we need to significantly step-up the urgency, intensity and focus of actions for Curlew if we are not to lose this iconic bird ‘on our watch’.
Suspension of Curlew hunting in France
The following article has already appeared on the Curlewcall website, but is repeated here for those who may not have seen it. It is worth adding that the suspension is simply for the 2019/20 hunting season. Perhaps the opportunity should be taken to look more closely at the International Waterbird Census data on Curlews, and to review the counts of wintering birds across Europe.
Hunting of Curlews in France in winter 2019/20 has been suspended, following a formal complaint to the French Council of State (the supreme court for administrative justice), by the French Ligue pour la protection des oiseaux (LPO – the French BirdLife partner).
The French Ministry of Ecology (Ministère de la transition écologique et solidaire) had previously issued a decree on 31 July 2019 authorizing shooting of up to 6,000 Curlews throughout French territory during the 2019/20 hunting season, but following the LPO complaint, an order from the Council of State has revised this decree, since it did not establish a zero bag limit.
The LPO based its arguments on France’s obligations under the European Union’s Birds Directive and AEWA (the Afro-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement), and was supported by letters from a large number of bodies outside France, including one sent on behalf of the Curlew Forum.
As noted in the Council of State’s response, the Curlew has remained on the official French list of species which may be hunted since 1987. However, in view of the species’ unfavourable conservation status, a five year moratorium on Curlew hunting in France was established from 2008; this moratorium was lifted in February 2012, allowing hunting along the French coast (where the majority of wintering Curlews occur in France). An annual total bag limit of 6,000 Curlews was established and, from the beginning of the 2019/20 hunting season, the area of permitted hunting was extended to cover the whole of the territory of mainland France.
The basis of the French argument for allowing hunting of Curlews was: on one hand, while the decline of the Curlew across north-western Europe is well documented and recognised, Curlews wintering in France originate mainly in north-eastern Europe (Finland, Russia, Belarus), where there is no proof of a decline in breeding numbers – though ringing and re-sighting efforts there are low in comparison with the rest of Europe; and on the other hand, counts of wintering Curlews, including birds originating in the north-east, suggest there may even be an increase. Ringing results certainly show that the majority of Curlews wintering in France, and in particular those along the French Atlantic coast come from north-eastern populations, but there are also ringing recoveries in France of birds from Poland, Germany, The Netherlands and UK, where intensive conservation measures are under way; furthermore, it seems likely that, in the event of cold winter conditions along the Atlantic coast of Europe, many wintering Curlews would seek refuge further south in France.
Under the European Birds Directive, Member States are required to maintain the population of the species (Article 2), and to ensure that the hunting of species does not jeopardise conservation efforts in their distribution area (Article 7.1).
The Curlew Action Plan developed under AEWA requires that any hunting of Curlew should take place only within the framework of an ‘Adaptive Harvest Management plan’. An expert group on adaptive management has been established in France; in May 2019, the group, in their report to the French ministry, were not able to evaluate the impact of hunting on the species’ population dynamics or to define a sustainable hunting bag. Significant knowledge gaps and related uncertainties (linked to available data on the demography of the species, the spatial distribution of populations and to hunting practices in France) were considered too great for the group to make relevant recommendations. As a result, and given the risks that hunting would cause to threatened populations of Curlew, the expert group recommended to the ministry not to authorise any shooting of Curlew until such knowledge gaps were filled.
Considering the unfavourable conservation status of European populations and the significant lack of adaptive management plan required for such threatened populations, the French Council of State ordered the ministerial decree to be modified by the establishment of a zero bag limit, in order to fulfil France’s obligations under European and AEWA regulations, as recommended by the expert group on adaptive management.
The suspension of Curlew hunting in France will be warmly welcomed by Curlew enthusiasts in north-western Europe, and indeed elsewhere. It should provide encouragement to scientists and to bird-watchers who contribute to national and international surveys of waterbirds to collect more and better data on the origins and distribution of Curlews, especially on breeding birds in the north-eastern area of the breeding distribution, and on wintering area in more southerly areas of Europe and Africa.
Let’s make sure that the Eurasian Curlew doesn’t go the way of the Slender-billed and Eskimo Curlews, now both almost certainly extinct.
Tribute to Hermann Hötker
It was with great sadness that his many friends learnt of the death of that lifelong student of waders, Dr Hermann Hötker, on 24 July 2019. Hermann was well known internationally for his work on waders, among other sites at the Rieselfelder Münster along the Rhine, and in recent years as leader of the NABU (German BirdLife partner) Michael-Otto Research station in Bergenhusen, Schleswig-Holstein, where he oversaw studies of many waders, including Curlews, on the wet meadows of the Eider-Sorge-Treene lowlands. His calm reflective tones were well known at international meetings on waterbirds and wetlands, as well as in his native Germany. A memorial ceremony was held at Bergenhusen on 27 August, and there will be further commemorations at the International Wader Study Group meeting in northwest England in late September. The Curlew Forum offers its deepest sympathy to Hermann’s family. The photo above is by Jan Sohler, and further details are available on the Bergenhusen webpage.