For many years now studies of breeding waders have been carried out in the Severn estuary and up the Severn and Avon Vales. The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) organised its first survey of Breeding Waders in Wet Meadows in 1981, with a repeat in 2002, while there was an extensive study led by Jim Quinn from Slimbridge in 1995. I was involved in organizing the 2002 BTO study in both Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, and for most summers since then have tried to gather data from the whole area, including estuarine sites like Aylburton Warth and Guscar Rocks, the New Grounds at Slimbridge and Frampton, through inland riverine wetlands like Walmore Marsh, the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust (GWT) reserves at Coombe Hill Meadows and Ashleworth Ham or Longdon Marsh in Worcestershire, to the many former gravel extraction areas in Worcestershire at Ripple, Clifton and Grimley along the Severn, or Lower Moor along the Avon. The results have been published as articles in the annual bird report, and have of course contributed to the 2013 “Birds of Gloucestershire”.
The principal wader species involved historically were Lapwing, Snipe, Curlew and Redshank; in recent years three new breeding waders have joined them: Avocet, Oystercatcher and Little Ringed Plover. Snipe presents the saddest story, since its wonderful drumming display has totally disappeared from the Severn and Avon Vales since 2003 (though there are still viable breeding populations in the Somerset Levels and at Otmoor in Oxfordshire); Lapwing and Redshank hang on in greatly diminished numbers. Whereas these three species require quite damp conditions, Curlews breed in slightly drier habitats, generally on hay meadows in the floodplain, and their breeding numbers seem to have been maintained rather better in the Vales. Nevertheless, there has been general recognition of a decline in breeding Curlew numbers right across northwest Europe, from Finland to Ireland, and the species figures on the IUCN Red List. In December 2015 a highly significant article in the journal ‘British Birds’ suggested that Curlew numbers had decreased so sharply (mainly through poor production of chicks) that Curlew was probably the most important bird conservation in the UK, because just over 25% of the world population nests in UK, while another 25% comes from northwest Europe to winter in UK.
In December 2015, it was decided, at a meeting held at the headquarters of the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust (GWT), with participants from Natural England, the Gloucestershire and Worcestershire Wildlife Trusts, BTO, the North Cotswold Ornithological Society (which has since amalgamated with GNS) – not forgetting of course GNS itself – to organize in 2016 a survey of breeding Curlews covering not only the Severn and Avon Vales, but also sites on the Cotswolds, where a small number of breeding Curlew still survive. Those surprised by the idea of breeding Curlews in the Cotswolds may remember the reading at the opening of the GWT’s reserve at Crickley Hill (formerly a County Council reserve) of the Gloucestershire poet Ivor Gurney’s poem “Crickley Hill”:
High above Gloucester and the Severn plain,
Few come there, where ever and again
The Curlew cries faintly.
The 2016 survey was carried out by volunteer observers, and succeeded in finding 30-35 pairs, 16 to 20 of them along the Severn, with 14 to 15 along the Avon. In addition, three pairs were found on the Cotswold sites in Gloucestershire and three or four pairs on higher ground away from the valleys in Worcestershire. Of the 30-35 pairs in the Severn and Avon Vales, six were definitely successful in producing fledged chicks and two more were perhaps successful; 18-22 pairs failed and the outcome of four to five nests was uncertain. During the 2016 field season, contacts were made with other groups working on breeding Curlews in southern England, and in particular with Mary Colwell, who that year had made a 500 mile ‘Walk for Curlews’ which took her from the Republic of Ireland, through Northern Ireland and north Wales right across central England to Lincolnshire; her book “Curlew Moon” recounts her adventures during her walk, with many examples of Curlews in literature and folklore. She highlights the dramatic situation in Ireland where the number of breeding Curlews has crashed from many thousands to less than 200 pairs. Through Mary’s efforts, a first ever all-Irish Curlew meeting was held in November 2016, and led to the creation of an official Task Force to remedy the situation.
In the United Kingdom a major RSPB five year project is investigating the reason for the decline in breeding Curlew numbers at six trial management sites in Scotland, northern England, north Wales and Northern Ireland; but all the trial sites are in the uplands: what of our small remaining populations in lowland sites? During 2016, we realised that there were lowland sites, similar to those in the Gloucestershire and Worcestershire vales, in the Somerset Levels, the Thames Valley, the New Forest, Salisbury Plain, north Wiltshire, Herefordshire, each with a maximum of 30 or 40 pairs, hanging on in the face of habitat change, agricultural activities, predation by foxes, crows and badgers; what was being done to conserve these small remaining populations, highly valued not just by naturalists, but by farmers and landowners, local people, all those with an appreciation of the wildness and special characters of the Curlew? In order to focus on lowland Curlews a workshop under the title “Call of the Curlew” was hosted at the headquarters of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust at Slimbridge on World Wetlands Day, 2 February 2017, with presentations by observers of all these local Curlew populations, but also with the participation of national bodies like the BTO, Natural England and many local naturalists and the farming community. The conclusions were: it is important to maintain not just overall numbers of breeding Curlews, but the broad distribution over southern England; surveys like those in 2016 should be continued, and there should be greater exchanges of information between surveys in different parts of the lowlands. To ensure that the momentum was not lost a very informal body called the ‘Curlew Forum’ was established, and a special website was established at the address www.curlewcall.org ; (this website has been funded since its inception by GNS). The website carries regular reports on Curlew surveys in the different breeding areas on the lowlands, plus news and views of all kinds relating to lowland Curlews. Please take a look!
In 2017 therefore a renewed survey was carried out in the Severn and Avon Vales, this time with Natural England generously covering the travel costs of the volunteer observers. Detailed results are available on the www.curlewcall.org website, but in summary 31-32 pairs were found, a similar number to 2016, but only three young birds were known to have fledged. Some of the regular breeding sites are at places like the Severn Ham at Tewkesbury or Upton Ham in Worcestershire, which are widely used by ramblers, joggers and dog-walkers from the neighbouring towns; GNS provided the funding to erect signs at Tewkesbury and Upton, inviting Curlew lovers to encourage successful nesting by keeping to footpaths and maintaining dogs under close control and these were in general well respected; since then similar signs have also been erected at Coombe Hill, at Twyning and at Asham Meadows near Eckington. In 2017 too, greater emphasis was placed on habitats, with botanical surveys of the hay meadows where most birds nested, in an attempt to obtain more precise information on exactly what areas were being used by the Curlew; while some of these meadows are of very high botanical value, it often turned out that the Curlews chose spots in the hay meadows with lower vegetation, where water remained a little longer and any young Curlews hatching would not be lost in very high, luxuriant vegetation. In addition there were surveys by the Gloucestershire Invertebrates Group at several of the major nesting sites to identify the insects present in the grassland, and to identify the availability of insect food for young Curlews which feed themselves on hay meadow insects almost as soon as they have hatched.
The exchanges with other groups studying Curlews in lowland England made us reflect on our basic approach to the question: hitherto we had been monitoring presence of breeding Curlews, and judging the success or failure of the nesting attempts by observing the behaviour of the adults or, if possible, the presence of fledged chicks. We had not actively searched for nests (a difficult enough proposition in the long, lush grass of the hay meadows where they normally nest). But did this mean that we were just monitoring extinction? Other groups (notably the very active Shropshire ‘Curlew Country’ project) were much more oriented towards protection measures – finding nests, protecting them from predators by erecting electric fences around the nests, working closely with farmers to avoid nests being damaged during hay-making operations. At a GNS Committee Meeting during 2017, the Treasurer suggested that some of the Society’s funds, accumulated through generous legacies from members, should be used to support a more adventurous ‘Curlew Meadows’ project providing ringing equipment, electric fencing, and even raising of chicks in captivity; this would also be a new approach from the financial point of view, since most GNS projects involved relatively small sums of money for purchase of specialist equipment. For once we could be more ambitious, and this might provide an example for other larger projects.
In 2018, as a result, the approach was different: the aim was to find and protect nests, to take some eggs from wild birds (with of course the proper authorizations from Natural England) and to raise the chicks in captivity before releasing them in the wild, and to ring as many wild birds as possible with colour rings, so that they could be identified in the field. Alas, the best laid plans o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley: the weather in 2018 was absolutely disastrous for nesting Curlews in the Severn and Avon Vales. To begin with, there were two major floods, one in March, one in April; the birds returned to their traditional nesting fields (they are known to be highly site-faithful, nesting year after year on the same field, sometimes in the same spot), but found them under several feet of water, once in mid-March, then again in mid-April; the breeding season was thus delayed by several weeks, and then, even worse, there was a six week heatwave in late May and June which absolutely burnt the grass and probably limited insect food. Despite the best efforts of the four principal observers (Juliet Bailey, Mervyn Greening, Andy Jayne and Mike Smart), no nests were found; indeed it was strongly suspected that many birds abandoned the attempt to nest. So there was no opportunity of protecting nests with electric fences, nor of raising chicks from wild eggs in an aviary provided by a sympathetic farmer. The hot conditions meant that farmers cut their hay early to save it from drying completely, often by mid or late June, whereas the young birds need cover into July. Once again, 34 to 36 pairs of Curlews were thought to be holding territory; it was at first thought that not a single chick had been raised in the vales in 2018; just one family of two chicks aged 14 days was colour-ringed, but were not seen to fly; it was thought that they had perished, but in April 2019 one of them was seen and its colour-coded ring read on the Camel estuary in Cornwall, so at least one survived.
Natural England, which had once again covered travel costs in 2018 for the four main observers, recognised the work of the four GNS members by giving each of them a West Midlands Conservation Award; other awards went to volunteer groups and to conservation-conscious farmers. It should be emphasized that the GNS volunteers have aimed throughout the course of the project to work as closely as possible with farmers and land-owners. Survival of the Curlew as a breeding species in the vales depends on maintaining the current traditional extensive agricultural system, based on a hay crop with grazing by cattle (or often, nowadays, sheep) once the hay has been cut. In the long run the aim must be to adapt current practice to the needs of the birds – by late cutting, by leaving areas where the birds are nesting uncut until after fledging, ultimately by amending farming subsidies to reward farmers on whose land Curlews prosper. It is a pleasure to acknowledge the willing cooperation the GNS team has met from so many farmers.
At the end of the 2018 season, a comprehensive report was submitted to for Natural England, documenting in detail the findings from 2015 to 2018, and identifying the prime sites where Curlews traditionally nest. This should form a basis for future work in the area on nesting Curlews. Also in 2018, further meetings devoted to lowland Curlews (like those in Ireland and at Slimbridge) have been held in Wales (at the Royal Welsh Agricultural Showground in Builth Wells in January) and Scotland (at the Battleby Conference Centre near Perth, under the title “Whaup’s Up?”); the Curlew Forum and its website go from strength to strength. Already, there have been major developments in 2019. The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust at Slimbridge has decided to embark on a ‘Severn Curlew Project’ involving continuation of the field surveys and active conservation measures initiated by GNS, and a major operation using their traditional avicultural expertise to raise young Curlews from eggs; the eggs have been sourced from wild nests on East Anglian airfields, where the nests would otherwise have been destroyed to prevent bird-strikes. WWT and GNS plan to continue to work together to promote the success of this operation. Another valuable outcome has been the increased recognition of the botanical value of the hayfields along the Severn and Avon, through cooperation between GNS, the Floodplain Meadows Partnership, Natural England and the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group; it is hoped that this may lead to increased conservation measures (perhaps designation of new or extended Sites of Special Scientific Interest) in these very rich riverine meadows. And there has even been a lowland Curlew Summit at 10 Downing Street, with the aim of defining measures to reverse the decline of breeding Curlews throughout lowland areas of the United Kingdom.