True Irish curlews are in serious trouble and may face imminent extinction, writes Dick Warner
My late father loved hillwalking and spending time in wild and desolate places. He had no particular interest in birds or birdwatching but one thing that always got him excited was the sight and, in particular, the sound of curlews. They seemed to love the same places he did and to epitomise the spirit of the bog and the mountain.
Nearly all of the curlews in Ireland are born in northern Scandinavia or north western Russia. They arrive here in the autumn because the marshes where they breed freeze over. When they arrive they join a small and rapidly diminishing band of true Irish curlews which are in serious trouble and may face imminent extinction.
A survey carried out at the end of the 1980s found around 5,000 breeding pairs in the Republic. Another survey carried out by the National Parks and Wildlife Service in 2015 and 2016 found they had dwindled to about 130 pairs, plus a tiny handful in Northern Ireland.
The experts cite two main reasons for the decline — habitat loss and nest predation. The nest robbers are mammals such as foxes and mink and birds such as hooded crows, ravens and black backed gulls. There may have been a small increase in the number of predators, and curlews may have become slightly more vulnerable to them as their numbers have declined, but fact of the matter is that nest predation has always been there, even when numbers of breeding curlews were stable, so habitat loss is likely to be a much more important factor.
Curlews nest on the ground. Most of the remaining ones nest in bogs — both midland raised bogs and upland blanket bogs. A few still nest in farmland, on damp, rushy pastures with light grazing. Some of this pasture land is on lake and river islands. All of these habitats are disappearing as fast as the curlew itself. Upland blanket bog has disappeared under forestry, midland raised bog has been destroyed for its peat and rushy fields with light grazing have succumbed to agricultural intensification.
A BBC radio presenter called Mary Colwell became so concerned about the plight of the curlew that she’s just completed a 500 mile walk through Britain and Ireland to draw attention to it. Largely as a result of this an international conference was held at a golf club in Co Westmeath a couple of weeks ago at which plans were formulated to save the Irish breeding population from extinction.
It may be possible to do this. Bord na Móna is in the process of winding down the extraction of peat for fuel. Cutaway bogs when they re-vegetate are ideal curlew breeding territory provided they are kept free of disturbance and development. With cooperation from Bord na Móna the Irish curlew could be saved.
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