Guest blog – Curlew calls by Mary Colwell-Hector

P2241979Mary Colwell-Hector is an award winning radio, TV and internet producer winning 14 awards over the last 8 years, including a Sony Gold in 2009.

She is also a radio presenter and feature writer for The Tablet.  She has produced natural history series such as Saving Species and Natural Histories on Radio 4 and was the lead producer for the Radio 4 series Shared Planet.

Mary has written two previous Guest Blogs here: one on GCSE nature studies and the other on Shared Planet.

Her excellent biography of John Muir was reviewed on this blog.


One of the reasons I have always loved curlews is they seem to hold opposites so gracefully. The long bill on a small head suggests Cyrano de Bergerac, but like that fictional character, the curlew is also a joyful poet and musician of the wild. From a distance the plumage is dull, but a closer look shows exquisite patterning of browns, cream and grey. Not bright colours for sure, but as G K Chesterton wrote about the seemingly monotonous look of an English village on a grey day, “Clouds and colours of every varied dawn and eve are perpetually touching and turning it from clay to gold, or from gold to ivory… The little hamlets of the warm grey stone have a geniality which is not achieved by all the artistic scarlet of the suburbs.” So to watch curlews feeding in rain or sun, dawn or dusk is to see subtle beauty adorning a muddy marsh.

By Neil Phillips from uk (curlew) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By Neil Phillips from uk (curlew) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
It is their call however that has fired the imagination of poets, musicians, artists and the prayerful. They have a range of calls from harsh to mournful, an evocative piping that seems to say so much about silence. The two most often noted are the “curlee, curlee,” from which it gets it name, and the hauntingly beautiful call heard most often in the breeding season – a bubbling crescendo that ends in a long note. It inspired Yeats to write of lost love.

O CURLEW, cry no more in the air,
Or only to the water in the West;
Because your crying brings to my mind
passion-dimmed eyes and long heavy hair
That was shaken out over my breast:
There is enough evil in the crying of wind.

Sad, melancholy, even downright ominous – the curlew has often been associated with death. In some areas, The Seven Whistlers were thought to be curlew, a painful cry renting the air that chilled those who heard it. In Wales the call of the curlew was associated with Cwn Annwyn, the name given to the mythical black dogs that hound the souls of the dead across the sky. To hear a curlew at night was to expect disaster.

By Teemu Rajala (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By Teemu Rajala (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Then again, Robbie Burns wrote that he had “never heard the loud solitary whistle of curlew on a summer noon…without feeling an elevation of soul.” The legendary wader expert Desmond Nethersole Thompson believed, “it would be a poor creature who cannot delight in the guttural sounds of a pair of courting curlews.” And Ted Hughes obviously watched and listened to them with joy. “Curlews in April/Hang their harps over the misty valleys.. A wet footed god of the horizons.”

We have a lot to thank curlews for, they have inspired so many thoughts and emotions and yet they are disappearing fast. The statistics are terrifying. Over the last 20 years there has been a 97% crash in numbers in southern Ireland. In County Sligo, where Yeats would have heard the curlew call in his youth, there is not one breeding pair. In the early 1980s there were an estimated 2000 breeding pairs in Ireland, a survey by BirdWatch Ireland last year revealed only 159. In Wales, there has been an 80% crash and throughout England and Scotland an average of around 50%. This unfolding disaster has largely gone unnoticed, mainly because the UK hosts many thousands of Scandinavian birds through the winter months.

Like sparrows and starlings, common birds always seem to be common – until they are in crisis. Since researching curlew many people have commented that they often saw curlews around their local patch but are now rare or gone altogether. Monty Don wrote to me about the field behind his house that floods in the winter. ‘We always heard them first in the night in early Feb – that bubbling rising call – and saw them a lot too. All gone.’ A pattern repeated in most places throughout Britain.

The reasons for the decline are many and varied. In Ireland the recent rapid economic boom saw the stripping of the bogs where curlews breed, intensification of agricultural land, drainage and an expansion of forestry. In Wales the proliferation of sheep on the hills, encouraged by headage, saw curlew habitat grazed and trampled. In England trampling by livestock is also a major issue. In the North Pennines, around 33% of nest failures were due to sheep and cows. In hay meadows, early cutting of silage destroys eggs and chicks of ground nesting birds, including the curlew.

In many parts of England curlews also face the difficult subject of dog walking, which has increased dramatically over the last 30 years. In 1980 there were 5.6 million dogs in the UK, in 2014 there were 9 million. Many of these dogs are walked in the countryside and the incidence of disturbance is increasing. People mostly stick to paths, dogs don’t, and once the birds are off the nest predators move in.

( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The ever-present thorny issue of predators bears down on curlews too, pitching them into the sensitive issue of control. Foxes are certainly a major predator and control in certain areas has been shown to help numbers recover. How that will be dealt with by the major wildlife NGOs working for curlews is yet to be seen, but it will certainly cause debate and consternation in some areas. In Shropshire, a seasoned birdwatcher told me that when curlews were common and nesting in loose colonies they could band together to scare away predators, often joined by lapwings. Today, with numbers so low they are easily attacked. In 2015, ornithologist Tony Cross monitored twelve nests laid in the Stiperstones/Cordon Hill area. Nine nests were predated before hatching and of the three nests that did produce nine chicks, not one survived to fledging.

Curlews are long-lived birds, they can reach the grand old age of 30. It seems that our British population is ageing and not reproducing, making the future look dire. As the UK holds 25% of the breeding population of the Eurasian curlew, this is an alarming state of affairs.

And so, with hope in my heart that we can turn this around, I am going to walk 500 miles across the British Isles to raise money and awareness for curlew projects. I begin in Northern Ireland where great work is being done by the RSPB on Loch Erne, and head down to the South to see the sterling efforts of BirdWatch Ireland. I will then travel through Wales and the centre of England visiting curlew recovery programmes and giving talks along the way. I end up in Boston at the end of May. Who knows how much this will do for curlews, but I hope it helps raise the profile of this beautiful, beleaguered bird.

In Wales the 7th Century St Bueno was sailing off the coast when he dropped his prayer book into the sea. A curlew swooped down and took it to the shore to dry. St Bueno was so grateful he blessed it and said that curlew should always be protected. Well, that blessing lasted a long time, but it is now due for a refresh, so I set out on the feast day of St Bueno, April 21st. If you can support my walk by giving to my Crowdfunding site I’d be very grateful. And do come and say hello and join me for a stretch if I am passing by.

Of all bird songs or sounds known to me,’ wrote Lord Grey in The Charm of Birds, ‘there is none that I would prefer than the spring notes of the curlew…The notes do not sound passionate they suggests peace, rest, healing joy, an assurance of happiness past, present and to come. To listen to curlews on a bright, clear April day, with the fullness of spring still in anticipation, is one of the best experiences that a lover of birds can have.”

If anyone reading this has a bed for the night to offer on my walk then that would be much appreciated.

Photo: Lukasz Lukasik, via wikimedia commons
Photo: Lukasz Lukasik, via wikimedia commons

39 Replies to “Guest blog – Curlew calls by Mary Colwell-Hector”

  1. Beautiful post Mary. It would be unbearably sad if we lost the Curlew as a breeding bird and something we should all be ashamed of. I wish you luck on your walk and hope that the funds you raise can be used successfully to turn the tide for this beautiful bird.

  2. It is sad when so called conservationists seem to feel that Curlew is a bird of the uplands. I am not that old but they were common in the Vale of York when I was a kid. The Ings were drained and turned into corn fields with a big flood bank pushing the floods to York costing now £billions of damage. Silage then turned the fields into mono culture with 2015 claiming 5 cuts in one year. Nothing can live in those fields! I even witnessed young Curlew cut to pieces with a mower while out doing Barn Owl work. The sound of the adults screaming for the safety of their young was something no one should have to hear. Remember the uplands are often an acid wasteland where waders like Curlew have been shown to raise few young compared to the rich lower fields. Rewilding will remove the waste of Red Grouse moors where the majority are found to day so how are you going to stop SILAGE and save the Curlew?

    1. John you are obsessed with silage,farmed all my life and mixed with lots of farmers obviously and never heard of a Curlew getting in the silage and for sure if hit with a mower then it will be absolutely certain to be there when we feed it.
      If you have seen one you are looking at a very very rare thing or just possibly a area that is not representative of silageing generally.

      1. He’s right though. These were traditionally birds of meadows and longer grass, and whilst they could often fledge chicks before a hay crop was taken, like the corncrake they stood no chance once we moved towards earlier and more frequent cutting regimes.

  3. Mary, thank you. What a lovely piece on “the wet footed god of the horizons” and so sad that soon it might only be a rare one on the horizon that we see.

    I admire what you are going to do – and can indeed offer you a bed, though I’m in Devon, so possibly not much use? At the very least, surely, your walk will raise awareness, and I think the curlew, by its ‘haunting’ nature, needs awareness rising to an every day level. I always ‘sing for the spiritual’ in nature, but sometimes I think it can work against a species, or a habitat.

  4. Many thanks for your evocative and well researched article. Its song is ethereal. Here’s another take on the name which most sources suggest comes from the sound the bird makes:
    The SOED (‘On Historical Principles’) suggests an assimilation from the Old French ‘courliu’, meaning messenger. That feels right and chimes with international legends like the Seven Whistlers.
    There again, is there a link between ‘curl’ and ‘arquata’, the Mediaeval Latin name for the bird (think ‘arcuate’ meaning curved). Linnaeus used this when giving the bird its scientific name, Numenius arquata.
    Whatever the answers, these thoughts will continue to ebb and flow in the imagination. Rather like the bird’s bubbling song rising and falling across the shrouded, rain swept moors. Mysteries aside, one thing is certain, the Curlew, along with your fine article, are sending us an unequivocal message.

    (By the way, don’t trust the words of this armchair etymologist).

    1. Dodgy addition from a non-academic:
      Regarding the generic name, might it be significant that Linnaeus chose Numenius? This ancient Greek philosopher believed in a trinity of gods who, in order to make the world function, had to communicate with one another across the vastness of the heavens?

    1. ‘Curlew’ is at least sometimes used as a plural. We refer to a flock of curlew rather than a flock of curlews (but don’t do this with many other bird species – for example we would normally say a flock of oystercatchers). It would thus seem grammatically entirely acceptable that you wrote ‘curlew…are sending us an unequivocal message’. 🙂

  5. The comments around dogs are extremely vague.

    Is there any basis in data for the claims made, and how does the impact of dogs compare to all the other more obvious reasons (that we never really begin to address) for the decline of yet another bird?

  6. There has been much talk on this site lately about withholding membership fees to NGOs and only giving, based on achievements. Well this seems a great place to start. Please be aware that, strangely, you only have until the end of the month to donate! Don’t think about it, just donate today, then it’s done and you can feel smug that you’ve done you bit to help our beautiful curlews. Oh, and Mary of course.

    Please can I be forgiven Mark for promoting another walk taking place now.
    A chap called Wayne Dixon is intending to walk the entire coast of the U.K. He started out on the 1st Feb from Lancashire and is currently in Cumbria.
    He is walking in aid of MIND but is also picking up litter on his route.
    Litter is more of a threat to birds and our land and marine wildlife, than Lead, shooters and Diclofenac put together.
    Please support him or pick up litter. Preferably both!

  7. Well done Mary and good luck. Near my house curlew nests are mown in the silage every year. It’s heartbreaking. The farmer is quite aware of the nests but doesn’t give a s**t. I don’t know how you can ever change that.

    1. North72,see my other previous comment.It certainly does not happen in the areas that I have worked on farms and then on the farm we were tenants.
      If true tell us your solution and let the NFU know what the solution is because maybe they will take it on board and let the Farmers Weekly and Farmers Guardian know as well.
      Having probably fed 50,000 tons of silage and never come across a wild bird let alone a curlew these tales seem very odd to say the least.

  8. Excellent blog and lets hope a solution is found however must point out a contradiction in the blog.

    around 33% of nest failures were due to sheep and cows. In hay meadows, early cutting of silage destroys eggs and chicks of ground nesting birds, including the curlew.

    Sheep and cows will never be in hay meadows when Curlews should be breeding they would be growing grass for making hay obviously and in the uplands where the Curlews breed the cutting for hay would be late so the chicks would have fledged.

  9. Not relevant to curlews but my partner used to work on Sunderland Airfield in the 70’s and marked lapwing and plover nests that were found. The Council workmen who then mowed the airfield grass, carefully mowed around the nests and the birds successfully fledged their chicks. Of course, that land is now under the Nissan factory! Also an oystercatcher called “Donald” used to nest on the gravelled terminal roof at Inverness Airport. I didn’t heard a curlew at all last year – silage cuts again I think.

    1. Have cut probably over two thousand acres of silage from areas as far apart as the Dark Peak District down to within a mile of the south coast over a period from 1963 to 2002 and have never ever come across a Curlews nest.
      That means to me it is either a myth or very rare instance in some rare locations that this Curlew killing in silage fields happens.
      Sadly more likely I believe it is just more anti farmer propaganda or why haven’t I come across it as it was my occupation and therefore far more experience I would think of silage making than those castigating farmers.
      Maybe it is just one or two peddling a myth that a load of sheep latch onto.

      1. I can’t let this go unchallenged, Dennis. I am not anti-farmer. My grandfather farmed and I have several farmer friends. Now silage is cut at least 3 times a year in my part of the Dales and in nesting season, how can it not affect ground nesting birds? And please try not to categorise us as sheep, when you don’t know us! We are trying to discuss causes and solutions – have you any?

        1. ‘Sheep’ should not be a pejorative term.

          If more people had sheep-like characteristics, the world would be a much more peaceful place.

          And since farmers make their livings out of breeding sheep, one would think they would have more respect for these lovely creatures.

        2. Yes, it is unfortunate that any comment on how changes in agricultural practices have affected wildlife is perceived as an attack on farmers. It is natural that farmers should try and operate their businesses as efficiently as possible but it would be wrong to pretend that this does not have harmful impacts on wildlife. It may not be easy to find ways for wildlife to coexist happily alongside modern farming but denial that there is even a problem is the surest way to fail to find a solution.

  10. I can support john Miles when he talks about anguished cries of the adults because I have witnessed that too. As for finding curlews in the silage when used for feed – it could only be bits of curlew fledgling, (easily missed) and by the time the silage is bagged up the crows etc have had time to scavenge. I have no idea what the answer to this problem might be, in the face of recalcitrant farmers, some of whom also claim environmental grants by the way. Do many people cut for hay now? It’s too late so they can’t maximise profit.

  11. North72,not personally aimed at you but it is incredible how the general public make statements about farming completely inaccurate as if they know more about farming than the professional farmer.
    Silage is nothing to do with maximising profit it is all about the English climate not having long periods of hot sun to dry the grass for hay and large areas of silage can be harvested quickly instead of taking weeks over the same area with hay.
    The other point is heavier crops of silage can be grown and harvested because farmers can use more fertiliser on silage crops than hay.
    Final point is there is far more nutritional value in silage than hay.
    Far more silage goes in clamps than in bags and I assure you fledglings going into clamps would show up in the feed.
    You would find that Badgers,foxes and corvids probably do far more damage to the Curlew than silage.
    It is unfortunate but it is a difficult thing to solve when a bird nests in silage grass as in my experience even if you by chance know a nest is there and you mow round it leaving a small grassy area predators soon find that nest.

    1. Correct me if I’m wrong but haven’t badgers, foxes and corvids been around awhile? And silage hasn’t? Haymaking had been around awhile too despite the weather. So the birds managed when fields were cut for hay, generally after the young had fledged and moved on. Not saying that farmers are solely to blame – but that the economics of cheaper food means less wildlife. In the past food costs made up a larger proportion of household expenditure. Are we prepared to pay more to farmers for our food in order to allow for less intensive farming? Somehow I doubt it.

      1. I think any solution here as with so many other problems is looking at consumption at least as much as production, in fact it really should be first step. It’s estimated Scottish families throw away about £470 food each year, add into that what shops throw away and the wonky fruit and veg that doesn’t even get that far and a hell of a lot of our land is being used to feed landfill rather than people. If we cut food waste and some of the resulting financial savings went to farmers and conservation nobody’s food security or standard or living would be affected. Add in changes of diet to reduce our eco footprint, generally eating less, feeding legitimate food waste to pigs, growing more crops in urban areas that are currently deserts of close mown grass (and thereby providing more educational opportunities too) then one hell of a lot of pressures on nature at home and abroad would be dramatically reduced. We just don’t do enough on cutting down waste, even organisations such as the RSPB and Woodland Trust very lazilly usually use FSC paper when the best option is always recycled fibre unless you can go totally paperless, I haven’t seen an option to receive Broadleaf or Nature’s Home electronically – why? This might seem like a digression, but with less need for commercial forestry and protein coming from swill fed pigs (and just eating/wasting less meat in first place) surely a hell of a lot more scope for wildlife restoring and flood reducing work in the uplands.

  12. Dogs disturb the birds, so is it not people who are responsible for the control of the dogs?

    Sadly people disturb the birds as well, they used to breed on lowland moors in my ‘backyard’ but Natural England and their encouragement of people visiting the sites put paid to that.

    But, as offered by others I would endorse the view that their evocative bubbling call is magical and does indeed lift the spirit.

    1. “Dogs” are not the cause of the widespread declines in many once common farmland species

      Our way of life is the problem. We need to change, instead of keep bemoaning how bad everything is, and expecting it to improve as if by magic

  13. Dennis – I am also from a farming background and if life had been real I would have been a farmer but my Uncle ruined any chance of that! [so I nearly became a game keeper!] My son has just married a farmer’s daughter like myself I married a farmer’s daughter and yes they all did/make silage and now may be an even worst crop – Maize. Its called progress in farming but it does not take away the fact that it has effect on what was classical farming birds. We know the weak will concentrate on the uplands as that is the last refuge of this amazing bird but history tells us a different story. Radio tracked Curlew chicks have been found to be killed by Buzzards so shooting estates will love to tell everyone that by braking the law they are doing every one a favour killing birds of prey so where does it stop. Give estates the power to kill! But the habitat is wrong for Curlew pushed to the limits. Then there is the flooding. Plant more trees. Curlew can fed in woodland as they do here at Geltsdale but they need open grassland to breed which is lost as the trees grow up. Well what about managing the flood plains saving £billions from the insurance companies who don’t pay a penny towards the purchase of land or management. Yes it is complicated but so is life!

    1. John I have told you all the absolute facts as I have not found any evidence of Curlew deaths in all that silage from dark peaks down to the south coast.So in that area roughly half of England it must be extremely rare or non existent.
      I have kept to Curlews and not brought other birds into it and of course it unfortunate that farmland birds find it hard to prosper alongside modern farming but there is no emphasis put by experts on possible solutions in fact almost the opposite as I was told by experts when proposing small areas of wild bird mixtures on farms that farmland birds need insects for chicks.
      I feel absolutely certain that their would be more insects on a patch of wild bird mixture than on almost any usual farm crop so it would surely be a win win situation but it will not happen because more publicity comes from shortage of farmland birds than from in my opinion helping them.
      Northern Diver of course cutting hay with even horse mowers was a relatively late development even my grandfather did it all with a scythe which was even more wildlife friendly but in all probability silage is here for some time and I wish just as much as anyone for some ideas on any solution but no one has ever supplied any whatsoever.Lots of you seem to have missed the point that I have always talked about the lowlands but you have tried to muddy the waters with uplands whereas the original comment I replied to said Curlews were more productive in the lowlands
      Of course it comes over as anti-farmer when someone says the farmer doesn’t give a shit.
      Farmers with animals,speaking in general terms and of course there are exceptions just the same as some of you public go Badger baiting.In general those farmers spend there life treating sick animals and generally looking after them as well as they can,do you suppose they do not care about the animals killed in the process of silaging,it just seems unavoidable because it is very unlikely anyone going back to haymaking and that may not solve it anyway with earlier climate now,earlier grasses and far faster machinery cutting wider swathes.
      I do not really care about those connections with farming and protests of not being anti farmer.
      This blog is so often full of anti farmer comments whenever farming is on the agenda to make that old red herring of we are not anti farmer laughable.
      Just look at all the propaganda about farm subsidies,for goodness sake loads of things in this country if looked into must get subsidies but nothing ever mentioned about them.
      Are not all those travelling on trains for instance subsidised.

      1. Dennis,

        Just because you have never seen Curlew chicks, or any other birds, being accidentally killed during mowing for hay or silage it doesn’t mean it never happens.

        How many times have you seen a gamekeeper killing a Hen Harrier?

        Does it not occur to you that your meadows may well have been unsuitable for curlew in the first place? E.g. fields too small, hedges too tall, too many boundary trees (predator perches)?

        In nearly 20 years of advising farmers on farmland conservation matters, you are the first farmer I have come across that denies that silaging can be pretty devastating for ground nesting birds. Stating that certain farming operations are inhospitable to wildlife isn’t being anti-farmer, it’s just a statement of fact.

        Your comments regarding wild bird mixtures suggest to me that you don’t have much of clue about what is going on in the world of agri-environment. Try looking up the ‘Big 3’ or indeed the Countryside Stewardship ‘Farm wildlife package’.

        1. Ernest,you have not seen anywhere as far as I am aware that I have denied silageing can be awful for ground nesting birds.If you can find where I have it was a mistake,mainly the problem being Skylarks.
          As previously stated in all my silage making over the lower half of England have never come across Curlew.
          By the way it is not often that silage for clamps done by contractors are small fields and several were upto 30 acres.
          Do not understand the bit about where you say about wild bird mixtures for sure they are better than other crops on farms and for experts to quote to me that young birds need insects as if WBM are not needed does not seem to make any sense as for sure there would be more insects on WBM than on other farm crops.
          Maybe the only thing I can think of is you do not believe a rspb expert told me that,in that case you are completely wrong.
          You surely are not suggesting that more small areas of wild bird mixtures on farms would not improve farmland bird numbers.
          I think you need to read my comments on this blog and see what I have put because your comment does not seem to represent anything I have said and
          I do think about 50 years of silage making would mean that my experience gives me a valid idea of what I have seen.
          Regarding WBM,on RSPB Arne a small area is full of small birds in winter and obviously unless these birds find food and survive in winter they are doomed but obviously there will be more insects on these areas in spring than on Maize for instance or almost any other crop or maybe you are even saying that is untrue.

          1. What is really funny about all these people blaming farmers for loss of birds and seemingly wanting to go back to old fashioned farming ways.
            All those need to just open up their minds because we are not going back to those days.
            Have even one of those who complain ever considered that they crush their car and go back to pony and trap because I doubt there is not one who has not killed considerable wildlife with their car but they think it is fair to complain about silage making.
            Believe me the pony and trap was so wildlife friendly.

        2. Ernest,you are picking things out that are not equal.
          Of course I have not seen a gamekeeper killing a Hen Harrier but I have not spent fifty years in their presence on places they would be likely to do so whereas I have spent fifty years silage making on the lowlands that the comment said was where they did best.
          I did not say silage making was not bad for birds,I said I had never seen a Curlew in the silage when fed and believe me you would if it had happened.
          In fact the only bird I have seen was a chicken that obviously was part of a fox kill.
          In actual fact in my experience and for sure you will say you know better,quite a lot of silage crops especially on the lowlands are so heavy and dense also one type of what is called by detractors sterile ryegrass that luckily birds keep out of them so avoiding silage machinery.
          Your comment actually bears no resemblance to what I have said meaning you have basically misquoted me on everything whereas what I was trying to do was give a fair picture of what actually happens.
          It is really pointless to try and put the farmers side to all disbelievers who have such a biased view that they know what happens better than those on the ground so from here on in let you all bask in hating silage making amongst a host of other farming activities that you do not understand because it matters not a jot to me.

  14. An inheritance.

    No nightingale in Berkeley Square,
    No curlew by the moor,
    No harrier yet aloft,
    No sparrow at my door,

    ‘Ratty’ gone from down the stream,
    Where eels once flashed,
    And mayflies swarmed,
    No redshank on the shore,

    The parliament stilled,
    The hedge, dead, quiet,
    Empty nests and mudless eaves…
    All that’s been lost since the war,

    “Badger’s Copse”, an estate,
    (for those who paid),
    With one stark oak,
    Whose rings once saw so much more,

    Goodbye trees, Goodbye flowers,
    No daisy chains,
    Small victories,
    Net loss, and yet worse than before,

    One day all this will be yours,
    (I let much slip away),
    Keep safe what’s left,
    I’m sorry there won’t be more.

  15. I think avian predators are going to be the biggest problem to reestablishing curlew and lapwing. You are going to need critical mass of curlew and lapwings to succeed as they did Before. Well before the BTO “baseline”. By the time the baseline was established the areas i am talking about were long cleared of lapwing. Mary I would like to echo the comments of the Shropshire bird watcher about mutual predator protection. 55 years ago I would cycle round the roads round Barnard Castle in Teesdale. Not the uplands but the green fertile meadow land used for cattle and sheep. It was amazing to cycle along parallel to crows and watch a succession of lapwings rise up to escort the crow along its way across their field. The aerobatics and calls were brilliant. Crows were not popular with sheep farmers and nests would be shot out so the population was low. Foxes were different as the hunt lent on tenants not to stop the holts and kill foxes.
    Looking now you would consider the are mainline arable/ mixed farming. Silage was coming in drainage improving and one framer proudly told me he was the first to start growing winter barley in the area and intended to go all arable instead of beef. Now the area has that classic spring yellow patchwork of oil seed rape.
    I now live on he East Anglian coast we have marsh grazings where lapwings and curlews could breed but the sandy land inland supports masses of free rang pig farms which are black with corvids in winter. If we feed these predator species through the the lean times it puts the balance right out.

    1. I think that that was an extremely insightful remark in Mary’s original guest blog that wader numbers may well be below a critical level that allows effective mutual predator deterrence. It’s obviously a genetically programmed Survival mechanism for many birds that unfortunately in the case of waders they usually can no longer employ due to initial decline caused by habitat change e.g new farming practices. Last year I watched a buzzard fly past a jackdaw roost and it was quite amazing to watch how they all rallied to chase it off via mobbing and incessant cawing. For years I’ve never seen more than two lapwings at a time so not hard to believe how badly they suffer from the lack of such a facility as cooperative repelling of predators. Of course certain people will exploit this as an example of predators needing control when it is anything but. In an act of masochism I recently reread one of Robin Page’s rants in which he (mis)quoted a study by Sonia Ludwig on post fledging Survival of ring ouzel, using it as evidence that buzzards are responsible for the decline. I skim read the original report and it was the usual case of Page selectively using information and leaving out a lot more. Yes indeed majority of ouzel chicks that died were killed by predators (not just buzzards) initially mainly mammalian then raptors in post fledging phase. What the report did say was that this was not unusual among other thrush species at home and abroad, predation is not new. Sonia did suggest that if there were more areas of longer vegetation it’s possible the greater cover would allow more fledging to survive. Now consider that the study was conducted on a sporting estate, grouse moor and deer ‘forest’ that implies absolutely sod all in terms of decent scrub cover for anything that needs it. Funny how Page missed that, and in addition the report mentioned that several young birds died of exposure, wouldn’t that be linked to lack of cover too? Heaven forbid that it’s human induced changes in the environment that are the fundamental problem rather than predatory species that have always coexisted with their prey. And if predation is at unnatural levels that could well be down to human interference too, such as Andrew’s example of feed for free range pigs increasing corvid numbers and Dr Jen Smart of the RSPB has noted that releasing millions of pheasants into the countryside when available protein should be declining could well be propping up fox numbers that waders have difficulty dealing with. The latter point seems perfectly rational and as it would be another symptom of what is inflicted upon us by industrial level game shooting hell of a good piece of ammunition to throw back at Page and his chums.

  16. I agree with Andrew that corvids can be a major factor; but well done you, Mary, for having the courage to cite in your Blog the tragic results of the Shropshire monitoring project. It is just a pity, when this magical bird is now identified as our highest priority bird species, that the impact of predation has to be viewed as such a sensitive and controversial issue. After all, the science is quite clear, and has been for 20 years or more: eg the RSPB’s Murray Grant’s definitive work on the subject in Northern Ireland in the 1990s; the RSPB’s 1995 report, “Silent Fields”, on the decline of many farmland birds in Wales which referred to the “accumulating evidence…that nest predation seriously depletes productivity, thus contributing to population declines”; the GWCT’s Upland Predation Experiment at Otterburn between 2000 and 2008 (; and more recently an important paper by the RSPB’s David Douglas and others which has also highlighted the positive association between gamekeepers and curlew nesting success (Journal of Applied Ecology, 51: 194–203). 

    I note you are stopping off at Lake Vyrnwy on your grand tour. The position there is particularly grave, as noted by Iolo Williams in his passionate speech at the Welsh launch of the State of Nature report in 2013 ( In 1984-86 there were 18-21 pairs on the reserve. The subsequent decline is graphically set out in the following comparative maps: In 2007 the RSPB embarked on a curlew recovery project on the most productive compartments of the reserve, based on habitat restoration. The initial results were encouraging, with 5 pairs on the project area in 2008 (with 4 fledging); however the recovery was short-lived, with a reduction to 3 pairs in 2009 (with 1 fledging), and 2 pairs in 2010 (again with 1 fledging). Since 2010 the numbers on the project area have remained constant at 2-3 pairs. Significantly none have fledged on the project area since 2010.

    It is thus pretty clear that habitat management alone has not been sufficient at Lake Vyrnwy to boost curlew numbers (Fisher & Walker; Conservation Evidence (2015) 12, 48-52). And while I understand that some predator control is now undertaken at Vyrnwy, it does not appear to be at a level of intensity required to have any meaningful effect on increasing breeding success.

    I wish you well on your forthcoming trek, and can appreciate that you want it to be a positive walk. But please don’t be shy about observing, during the course of your planned talks and media interviews, that the survival and recovery of the curlew depends very largely on conservation prescriptions derived from game management. For while it may be unpopular to say so on this site, it remains the case that driven grouse moors in particular (which sadly I see you will be by-passing) boast some of the most healthy populations of curlew in the country. A failure to acknowledge this truth can only result in a continuation of the current situation of doom and gloom that you are commendably eager to reverse.

  17. No mention above of any possible toxic chemical connections to Curlew decline, unless I’ve missed it. Apart from loss of breeding cover, repeated silage and predators etc any chance atomspheric pollution and poisoning of Curlew’s food surply might be playing a part ? I think of the recent admissions and global concerns regarding wholesale use of Glyphosate-containing herbicides. Also how do waders generally get on with the growing epidemic of Himalayan Balsam now engulfing river-banks throughout Britain and seemingly unstoppable such does it enjoy our damp clime and wetlands and even climbing up the damp hillsides well away from the water?

    Also environmentally, wont diesal one day be seen to be as toxic air borne and therefore threatening all life as many another now banned manmade products have proved?

    Don’t we need the EU’s ‘precautionary principle’ evermore as opposed to America’s ‘impact assessment’ threatening to replace pc through U.S TTIP multinational chemical lobbyists now pressuring against further E.U ‘precautionary’ testing of thirty-odd possible carcinogenic chemicals whose included in products. even minimal amounts, over time (20 years !?) could prove a boon for human sick bays? And farm vets’ rounds?

    Thankyou Mary Colwell and Michael Mc Carthy’s ‘ ‘i’newspaper report 23 Feb 2016.

    I could hardly believe, as an ordinary ‘Joe Soap’, what I was reading re Curlew decline and even in Ireland more so. Incredible. But then on reflection why be surprised when the supposed oil-fired ‘Green Revolution’ has come at a terrible price globally. And our politicians…………commitment to environmental conservation and human health ?

    People laugh at ‘organics’ but who may well have the last laugh – which I’m sure they will not enjoy some way down the road.

    Very welcome in Pembrokeshire when yo arrive Mary.

  18. I’ll send her twenty quid,the Curlew is a good friend to the keeper often alerting him to unseen vermin on the moor.

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