The evocative cry of the curlew is a memory of summers past for many in rural Ireland.
Unfortunately, Ireland’s breeding curlew population has plummeted by 96% since the 1980s, so this memory isn’t shared by younger generations.
Loss and fragmentation of its habitats are the main reason why this ground-nesting bird is now on the IUCN red list of threatened species.
These reasons were in turn driven by factors such as drainage and restriction of bogland, agricultural intensification, unmanaged upland burning, land abandonment and afforestation.
Such habitat changes increased vulnerability to predation, further diminishing numbers. Fewer than 150 breeding curlew pairs remain.
That may surprise those who have seen curlew flocks in recent months. However, these are likely to be migrants arriving from Scotland and Scandanavia, from July until the spring. Breeding pairs, on the other hand, can be spotted in April, May and June and are identified by their distinctive bubbling call and circular display flight.
Surveys by BirdWatch Ireland and the National Parks & Wildlife Service (NPWS) in 2011 and 2015/2016, plus many calls for action, underpinned the decision by Minister Heather Humphreys to establish a curlew task force in 2017. This task force brings together stakeholders to make decisions aimed at saving the curlew. Established separately but running in parallel is the NPWS Curlew Conservation Programme, focused on monitoring and improving habitats in seven key sites for breeding curlew.
This year’s cold winter and summer drought were particularly difficult for curlews.
In monitored sites, 19 chicks were confirmed to have fledged in 45 territories, in 2018. While this may appear low, Barry O’Donoghue, who manages the Curlew Conservation Programme, says it’s “within the range for maintaining a stable population” and an improvement on the first year’s results.
“Compared to projects in the UK with similar numbers of territories, they had zero chicks produced, so we are hopeful that we have begun to see a turnaround in fortunes for the curlew,” he says.
It won’t be easy, but we have made a good start and in some areas we have actually seen an increase in breeding numbers.
Independent curlew task force chair Alan Lauder also notes an improvement on previous years, saying we should monitor what is happening at the most successful sites and learn from them.
He says, as monitored sites don’t contain the whole population of breeding curlew in Ireland, there were potentially more chicks elsewhere.
Senior conservation officer with BirdWatch Ireland Anita Donaghy says the results are “mildly encouraging” but echoes the sentiment that we have a long way to go.
“Farmers are the number one land managers when it comes to curlew in Ireland,” says O’Donoghue.
Indeed, farmers have been heavily involved in curlew conservation, in the many agri-environment schemes and in task force discussions.
For example, farmers with curlew in their area were prioritised for entry into GLAS, and the opportunity to get €5,000 annually for avoiding damaging activities and promoting suitable habitat.
The Curlew Conservation Programme has established curlew action teams, with advisers, curlew champions, and nest protection officers, in each monitored area.
Comprising people from various backgrounds, these teams work with the community and landowners to monitor sites and improve habitats.
Co-operation Across Borders for Biodiversity (CABB) was launched in December to improve breeding habitats for curlew and other species.
Supported by the EU, the €4.9m project aims to restore 2,228 hectares of blanket bog in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland.
“As part of this, BirdWatch Ireland is implementing a small number of management agreements directly with farmers who have breeding waders, including curlew, on their lands,” says Donaghy.
“We provide advice, pay them for basic habitat measures and have the facility to pay for capital works programmes.”
June 2018 saw the completion of the Results Based Agri-environment Pilot Scheme (RBAPS) in Leitrim and the Shannon Callows. Predominantly funded by the EU, it rewarded participating farmers for biodiversity measures on their land.
Looking ahead, a three-year Irish curlew breeding European Innovation Partnership trial (EIP) will soon commence in southern Lough Corrib and south Leitrim.
Overseen by BirdWatch Ireland, the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association (INHFA), Irish Grey Partridge Trust,and Teagasc, it will focus on training and assisting farmers in predator control, says INHFA vice president and EIP operational group member Henry O’Donnell, a cattle and sheep farmer in Co Donegal’s Inishowen Peninsula.
“This is going to be a source of income for farmers and will supplement their conventional agriculture.”
Longer-term schemes would be extremely beneficial going forward, says Lauder.
“Curlew have large territories and often move big distances between farms,” he says. “It would be encouraging to have a scheme promoting a level of integration between neighbouring farmers.”
Agri-environment schemes are praised by O’Donnell, but he hopes other factors don’t override their success.
One of his concerns is the push for agricultural intensification, which he says is driven by Teagasc’s farm advisory services, Harvest 2020, and “other objectives not in keeping with sustainable agriculture”.
“Farmers should be advised that if you kept less animals in a less intensive situation, it would be better for conservation, better for your bank account and more sustainable for the environment.”
The basis for environmental schemes and protection of endangered birds is to provide a suitable habitat and try to increase their numbers.
“That ignores the reality of things like predators, and the fact that blanket afforestation with conifers has provided an ideal habitat for predators.
“That is as much an issue in the decline of the bird species that we are concerned with as is producing a suitable environment for them.
For Donaghy, agri-environment schemes like GLAS need to employ ecologists giving specialist advice to farmers, something she says proved very beneficial in RBAPS.
“That’s really going to improve results on the ground in terms of better habitats and better nesting conditions.”
While glad to see the curlew issue addressed by the Government, she’s equally “dismayed” that calls for action were responded to so late, saying that the curlew’s situation would be better if action had been taken “even five years ago”.
However, Donaghy is “cautiously hopeful” that efforts from all sectors can improve the bird’s prospects, and says, we “must not give up”.