Mary Colwell is an award-winning radio, TV and internet producer winning 14 awards over the last 10 years, including a Sony Gold in 2009. She is also a radio presenter and feature writer for The Tablet.
Mary has written six previous guest blogs here (A Natural History GCSE, 23 November 2012; Shared Planet, 15 January 2015; Curlew Calls, 18 February 2016, Natural History GCSE (2), GCSE in natural history (3) – next step, 8 November 2018, and Natural History GCSE (4), 29 May 2020. Two of her books have been reviewed here too (John Muir, Curlew Moon).
Find her on Twitter as @curlewcalls
Last weekend, I watched a small flock of curlews on the mudflats on the outskirts of Clevedon. They were restless, flying between the water’s edge and sodden fields, calling their name. Change is coming, wrapped in the warmer wind and longer days – we all feel it. I don’t know where these birds come from, they may be local breeders from the Somerset Levels, or perhaps from northern Europe, but I wish them well in this world where the odds are stacked against their producing any young in the coming months.
Concern for the plight of curlews has been rising over recent years, particularly since the publication of “The Eurasian Curlew – the most pressing bird conservation priority in the UK?” by Daniel Brown et al. in 2015 in British Birds. In 2016, I helped raise public awareness by undertaking a 500-mile walk across Britain and Ireland to find out why they were in trouble, put on curlew conferences and wrote Curlew Moon. Many others have written articles, held events, and curlews are common in posts on social media. HRH The Prince of Wales held two summits, one in a hotel in Dartmoor in 2018 and another in Highgrove in 2020, and a Curlew Summit was held at Downing St in 2019. For a shy bird that stays away from people, it has got a lot of attention. Yet still its magical call and graceful form is disappearing from the landscapes of Britain, because attention alone doesn’t protect it – action on the ground does.
Yesterday, the Curlew Recovery Partnership England (shortened to CRP) was officially launched, with the support of Defra. We have been meeting and planning for a while, as a roundtable of nine organisations that form our Steering Group: RSPB, BTO, GWCT, WWT, Natural England, the Duchy of Cornwall, Bolton Castle Estate, Curlew Action and Curlew Country. We have recently appointed a Chair, me, and a full-time Partnership Manager, Prof Russell Wynn. The Steering Group will not operate alone but reach out to a range of other interested people and organisations, to create a hub with links that spread far and wide. We all have one aim, to turn it around for curlews in England. But this is not just about curlews, because they don’t live in isolation. By protecting curlews, we also safeguard other wildlife that relies on grassy, insect-rich, wildflowery, heathery, muddy places.
The plan is to connect and support the curlew field groups already working, to encourage new projects, to share best practice, to provide an information exchange, to ensure curlews are taken into consideration in the new agricultural world, and to help raise funds. My job is to keep us all focussed on the vision, and Russell has the complex, nitty-gritty role of making it all happen out there in the real world. And it will be complicated and tricky because nothing about conservation in the UK is straightforward to carry out.
The problems faced by curlews are huge – the biggest in conservation. They nest on the ground on farmland and upland moorland, two of our most complex landscapes. The way we manage our uplands is of increasing concern as the whole world grapples with climate change. Windfarms and forestry are mitigation measures that are increasingly deployed across the uplands of Britain, and both impact on curlew breeding areas. Heather moorlands are also the site of grouse shooting estates, with all the emotion and controversy they produce – curlews can thrive on these estates, but increasingly find themselves in the middle of a bitter conflict. In farmland, the intensity of food production, particularly the demand for large quantities of meat and dairy, means frequent silage cutting is a major factor in destroying eggs and chicks, as are high numbers of generalist predators like foxes and crows. In some places, no chicks survive to fledging at all. Just in this one paragraph I have touched on some of the most intractable issues in conservation. No one in the CRP is under any illusion this will be an easy ride.
The CRP’s diverse membership has to be its strength. To make Britain nature-rich once again needs all of us to agree on a vision and to work towards it. We may have different ideas on how to get there, but the goal is the same – to make the world better for curlews and the associated landscapes and wildlife that they live with. All of the organisations involved have to cut down on the rancour, build on success, be open about disagreements and commit to resolving them with mutual respect. Only the years ahead will reveal if we manage to forge a new path, one that diverges away from the mire that bogs us down and stops progress, but I am optimistic we can. British wildlife deserves better, that we make this work.
Author and naturalist, Jonathan Tulloch, wrote recently that “I can never hear a curlew without feeling forgiven.” We are all implicated in the damage being done to nature, and it is heartening to see many new initiatives developing to repair the broken natural world in the UK. Wildlife is immensely forgiving if we allow it the space it needs. I hope the curlew will begin to sing its soul-touching song in increasing numbers over England, and that it will be the sound of success that spurs us all on to greater things.