The Daily Telegraph quotes Jake Berry (who is unfortunately likely to have a prominent role in any Johnson government) as wanting to make the hook-beaked (eh?) Curlew ‘the panda of UK conservation.’. Jake will never persuade Curlews to eat bamboo and give up sex but maybe that wasn’t what he meant.
Because this is the Telegraph, and because it is written by Christopher Hope the chief political correspondent (he has form), it’s high on bigging up the large gang of ministers who were gathered around the table worrying about the panda of the north (I wonder how many ministers were present?) and high on predators being the main problem for Curlew.
Predators are thought to be a big problem for nesting Curlew – especially Red Foxes but to a lesser extent (as I read the evidence) Carrion Crows (and to no significant extent whatsoever Jay, Magpie, Rook or Jackdaw).
When people go on about the problem of predation they tend to get pretty rapidly to the solution being killing the predators rather than looking at why there are so many predators who spend some of their time eating Curlew eggs and chicks.
And one of the reasons we probably have so many Red Foxes and Carrion Crows is that we are feeding them Pheasants in mind-boggling numbers every year. If you put 33,000 tonnes of Pheasant meat into the countryside you might expect to see carrion eaters doing rather well.
Now you might think, as I did once, that Pheasant releases and Curlew declines cannot possibly be linked but now I’d be pretty sure that they are, to some extent. Every time I hear ‘predation problem’ I now think ‘Pheasant problem?’.
But surely, you might think, as I once did, that Pheasants are a lowland species whereas Curlew live in the uplands. Well, hang on, Curlew now live mostly in the uplands because they’ve disappeared from the lowlands so that doesn’t work as an argument at all. The big increases in lowland Pheasant releases over decades will have boosted lowland predator numbers and put extra pressure on lowland Curlews – and lowland Snipe, lowland Redshank and lowland Lapwings one would imagine.
And as I have visited the moorlands of Britain in recent years I have been gobsmacked by the numbers of Pheasants running around on the roads in upland Britain in July and August. I remember stopping on the road through Bowland on one occasion to look over the moorland and hearing Pheasant after Pheasant calling from the heather before I eventually heard a Red Grouse. As I descended towards Abbeystead there were legions of Pheasants running about in the road. In the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors (yes, National Parks!) the roads in late summer are carpetted in places by squidged Pheasants (all feeding the local Red Foxes and Carrion Crows of course).
And if you look at the BTO breakdown of population trends for Pheasants – I am guessing you never have – then you find this interesting information on how Pheasant numbers have changed in different habitats;
Note that this information is a little out of date but it shows that Pheasant breeding numbers (these are measured in spring through BBS) have increased everywhere but have increased most in upland areas (although unfortunately the smallest sample size). And that increase is an average of a two and a half times increase. A 160% increase (ie from an index of 100 to one of 260) in a mere 16 years! And that increase is fuelled by increased numbers of released Pheasants – which is an even higher percentage increase. So if you were looking for the cause of increased predator pressure on Curlews in the uplands you might well look at increased numbers of Red Foxes, but if you wanted to know why Red Fox numbers have increased then you might well have to thank the local Pheasant shoot and its gamekeepers for feeding the Red Foxes. And those are the Red Foxes that are eating the Curlew.
And that’s how Pheasants attack Pandas, I mean Curlews.