‘Severn Vale Guardians’ session on Curlews and their habitat

As already noted elsewhere on this website, a Facilitation Fund project has been approved along the Severn estuary and floodplain under the title ‘Severn Vale Guardians’. A Facilitation Fund provides support to bring together farmers in a given area, normally under the leadership of one or more non-government bodies, in this case the Gloucestershire FWAG (Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group) and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust at Slimbridge. The aim is to bring farmers together to discuss matters of common interest, and in particular some wildlife issues: the particular focus of Severn Vale Guardians is on Eels, Cranes and Curlews.

On 12 June a group of 25, mainly local farmers, met at the Red Lion, Wainlodes, a pub bang in the middle of Curlew habitat in the floodplain of the Severn. The meeting began with an outline of the project aims by Sarah Wells of FWAG, then Mike Smart spoke about the drastic global decline of the Curlew, and the efforts to conserve the remaining breeding birds in the Severn and Avon Vales between Gloucester and Worcester. He noted that the spring flooding this year had made the planned nest finding difficult, and that the main difficulties facing the birds in the immediate area was habitat change; predation by foxes, badgers and crows; disturbance by walkers (especially those with dogs); and early hay cutting. He suggested that one part of the solution was to adapt current agri-environmental regulations to reward farmers who conserved Curlews nesting on their land. A lively discussion ensued, concentrating on the need for control of predators, notably crows, and on the possibility of using drones fitted with heat seeking instruments to find nests. The whole group then walked to a nearby meadow on which Curlews had nested in previous years, where Juliet Bailey showed some of the items of botanical interest which provide the essentials of the habitat for the Curlews.

The farmers who attended showed great willingness to look after nests and young on farm, but understandably are keen that very late hay cuts are only required on fields where Curlews are actually nesting, and young are present, rather than taking a broad-brush approach which could have a greater impact on the farm business. Therefore the identification of nests is a key priority to be taken forward from the meeting. Secondly the agri-environment scheme’s support for farms in Curlew breeding areas is generally seen as not sufficient, both from the point of view of increasing Curlew productivity and in supporting farmers.  Therefore going forward there is a need to work with Natural England and DEFRA to improve specific Curlew options that are targeted at fields where Curlew are present; and also look elsewhere for how to support and reward farmers who do raise young Curlews on their land.

The group then returned for a final presentation by Jenny Phelps on the policy work being done with DEFRA by Gloucestershire FWAG to ensure that future policy recognises the role of working farms in providing ecological services like flood control, carbon capture, and limitation of climate change, as well, of course as promoting food production and conservation of biological diversity.

It is planned to follow up this first meeting with more exchanges of information of birds and botany, and with visits to individual farms.

Mike Smart & Sarah Wells

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