Curlew conservation in Belgium: a diary

This is the first of two blog posts from Curlew Action's visit to Belgium. Read the second one – with further thoughts from Mary on Belgian and European Curlews.

Meet Griet Nijs, a Curlew hero. She works for the conservation organisation Natuurpunt, the largest environmental charity in Belgium. Curlews are Griet’s passion, and she works tirelessly to lead a small group of volunteers to save what remains of them, about 200 pairs throughout the country.

A photo of a woman kneeling in a field, looking towards the camera.
Griet Nijs, Curlew conservationist in Belgium. (Photo by Mary Colwell)

Between 18-21 May 2024, Manager of Curlew Action, Ellen Bradley, and I joined her in the field to find out more about why Curlews are faring so badly – a decline of between 50-60% in 20 years. 

Day 1 – Gete Valley

We arrived on a warm Saturday afternoon and went straight to Griet’s main study site, the Gete Valley, surrounding the town of Tienen in eastern Belgium, halfway between Brussels and Liège. This peaceful area is not far from the border of the two main provinces of Belgium, Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north and French-speaking Walloonia in the south.

We drove through tidy villages and past rows of smart houses to peaceful farmland of fields, copses and hedges. The humidity was building, and a thunderstorm threatened as we walked down a track between the large fields fringed with bushes and reeds that vibrated with bird song. The warblers led the choir: Icterine, Cetti‘s, Reed and Garden Warblers and Blackcap joined Whitethroat and Lesser Whitethroat plus a host of Marsh Frog singing from the ditches. For two people who had suddenly arrived from the middle of a British city, the beauty of the sound was almost overwhelming.

Each winter the Gete Valley is wet and occasionally floods, but normally by May the fields would be dry and ready for a first cut, however, this is an unprecedented year. There has been so much rain over the last few months that large areas are still under water and farmers cannot use heavy machinery, and so the fields untouched. Ducks floated on the temporary lakes and herons hunted around the edges of standing water. Griet said she had never known anything like this much rain, and more is forecast.

A photo showing heavy grew clouds filling the sky above a field
Rainclouds threatening more rain. (Photo by Mary Colwell)

And then Pim, Griet’s Dutch husband and a professional ornithologist, saw a female Curlew walking through a nearby field. She took off, bubbling, and her partner soon joined. Griet knows this pair well. The female is from an egg she rescued from an abandoned nest four years ago. She took the eggs to a friend who owned an incubator, and then the chicks were raised at Natuurhulpcentrum, a wildlife rescue centre. The female flying before us was the result. She was given the name Moana, which means ocean, by Spanish researchers who saw her on her wintering grounds.

From 2022, Natuurhulpcentrum was set up to be the main headstarting centre in Belgium, and all the Curlew eggs are provided by Griet from abandoned or doomed nests. So far, they have incubated 30 eggs and released over 90% back into the wild at various locations.

A photo of 19 Curlew eggs in an incubator
Curlew eggs incubating in the rescue centre. (Photo by Mary Colwell)

It’s not all good news, though. As we marvelled at the Curlew flying above Griet told us, “They have already failed this year, they had four chicks, but all were predated in the first week. They failed last year too. It is hard to see that they will ever succeed in this landscape.”

We had immediately come face to face with the harsh reality of Curlews in Belgium, which face a perfect storm of inadequate agricultural policy, unsupportive politics, lack of awareness and climate change - problems Griet deals with every year. So far, she has found 12 nests in the Gete and Velpe Valley study area, and as of 21 May 2024, all had failed either through predation or abandonment.

Over the last four years she has monitored 45 nests here and only four chicks have fledged. In fact, it could be even worse, there could have been nearer 70 nesting attempts as some pairs may have tried twice. She tells us that only one in ten nests in Belgium ever fledge a chick, giving a productivity way below what is needed for a sustainable population.

Griet estimates that only 20 chicks fledged in the whole country in 2023, and they need at least 100 just to hold the line, many more are needed to begin a recovery.

A photo of a woman kneeling on a farm track, holding a Curlew chick in her upturned hands.
Griet with 11-day-old Curlew chick. (Photo by Mary Colwell)

In the wet river valleys where they prefer to nest, if the eggs and chicks are not predated they are lost to agricultural practices, mainly rolling the soil prior to planting and grass cutting for silage. As with Curlew Action’s visits to Poland and the Netherlands, it is daunting in the extreme to see the enormity of the problems faced by ground-nesting birds across farmed landscapes. Can this huge agricultural tanker be turned around? Or will European agricultural policy encourage it to steam ahead, becoming ever more intensive and causing extinctions in its wake?

Griet talks to many farmers to try to persuade them to leave areas uncut, to allow her to put up electric fences around nests, to monitor the birds on their land, and to let her know if they find Curlew nests. Most farmers are helpful, but others see ‘greens’ as a disruptive force that stops them doing their job.

A growing number are not opposed to protecting the birds, but don’t want to be seen to co-operate. This is a difficult part of Griet’s job, and she is sympathetic to the pressures and the frustrations farmers face. She thinks these difficult conversations are why meadow birds are not popular to work on; people don’t like strained interactions.

A woman smiling and holding a young Curlew chick in her cupped hands.
Ellen with a young chick. (Photo by Mary Colwell)

As ever, she is wise; it is inevitable, she says, with a political system that is increasingly encouraging intensive farming. At the moment, Belgium is centre-right but with elections due in June, many fear a more right-wing government will be less inclined towards nature protection.

“We have to make Curlew more loved and more known by more people and for famers to love the birds again,” she said. “That is perhaps easier in The Netherlands, just a couple of hours drive away, where there is a tradition of caring for meadow birds, but it isn’t so strong in Belgium. But this message has to come from a farmer, not a conservationist, they are more likely to listen to a farmer.”

Day 2 – Limburg Province

Today’s site visit was to various locations in the Limburg area. We passed a street sign, ‘Wulpstraat’ or ‘Curlew Street’, showing there is, or has been, a local connection to the birds.

A smiling woman wearing a Curlew-themed t-shirt, points up at a street sign that says Wulpstraat
Griet – wearing a Curlew Action t-shirt – points up at the 'Wulpstraat' ('Curlew Street) sign. (Photo by Griet Nijs)

The first stop was a large field of rye grass that is still to be cultivated and to a nest in the centre surrounded by an electric fence. The adults flew away as we approached, calling loudly.

Originally there were four eggs, but one was predated very quickly, probably by a Stoat or Weasel, but without camera evidence it is hard to say for sure. The remaining three were safe. It was the first good news of the day.

A short drive away, we parked on another farm a track. Radio antennae in hand, Griet walked into a large, wet, brown field of maize stubble to try to find three tagged chicks. The signal told us they were still alive after 11 days and had chosen this muddy mess to feed in rather than the surrounding dense rye grass.

It was a joyful moment to see her come back to the road carrying a cloth bag, all three were very much alive and their measurements told us they were healthy and on track. With over two weeks still to go to fledging, concern remains, but it was a heartening uplifting moment.

A photo of two women kneeling on a farm track next to a field, one is holding a Curlew chick in her upturned hands
Ellen and Griet with a Curlew chick. (Photo by Mary Colwell)

The next stop evoked mixed emotions. The fenced off nest was in the middle of another field of maize stubble. The vegetation inside the fence was tall and dense, outside a large area of brown stubble, and beyond dense rye grass. Griet knew the chicks had only just hatched but she worried there was not enough food around to sustain them.

A photo of a woman walking through field of maize stubble, with a grey sky above
Griet walking through maize stubble to locate day-old chicks. (Photo by Mary Colwell)

Her radio antennae picked up a signal inside the fence and another in long rye grass a distance away. After much searching two tiny chicks were found in the fenced area and one in the rye grass beyond. They were so young they still had their egg tooth at the end of the bill, which helps them break out of the shell.

Her fears proved to be grounded, all three were underweight. “I don’t know where the chicks can go, it’s all silage, maize and wheat, maybe the parents will lead them to a ditch over there,” and pointed to a narrow drainage channel fringed with more natural vegetation, but as it was so small, was it enough to both feed and protect them? As a Buzzard soared overhead, the optimism of the two previous visits began to fade. A few days later, all three were predated.

We then drove to Aronst Hoek, a nature reserve owned by Natuurpunt, and to a field they had recently bought to extend it. Part of the conditions of purchase laid down by the government was that it must be planted with trees, which has already begun. This is probably the last year it will be used by Curlew. It was worrying to see so much standing water in the fields and along paths, in fact we had been turned back from a walk by a flooded track. “I hope the nest is high enough, but I don’t think so,” said Griet, as she set off towards the electric fence, her wellies sloshing through calf-deep water.

The sight of four completely submerged eggs was awful. As Griet held them they glistened in the sun but were stone cold. We were not sure they could have survived 24 hours under water with no oxygen for the developing embryos, other than the eggs’ internal air sacs. A plan was made to get them to the rescue centre – it had to be worth a go. And so it was, at least two out of the four eggs were initially alive and were incubated, although a week later it looks as though they may all have died.

Increased flooding due to climate change is now obvious. No one in Belgium had experienced so much rain or the water levels so high for so long, and we know from UK projects in river catchments, the story is the same.

A photo looking down into a submerged Curlew nest, with the four eggs underwater
Completely submerged Curlew eggs. (Photo by Griet Nijs)

Over dinner that night we talked about the personal trauma of working on a species that is declining so rapidly and facing such enormous problems. It takes its toll, as Curlew Action’s European Curlew Fieldworker Workshop showed in our session on ecological grief. People who work with Curlew day in and day out feel the loss deeply and personally.

“The first year I worked on Curlews I cried so much. I wake up in the night feeling stressed. I think I should be doing more, that it is somehow my fault. I am so worried about them. Will I find them in time? People are looking over your shoulder and see you have only found 12 nests, and none of them have succeeded, but I don’t know how to do any more than I am doing, I want to do a better job and I try my best, but I feel an awful sense of responsibility. I sleep much better in the winter when the breeding season is over.”

Pim agreed it affects his wife as the main Curlew fieldworker in all of Belgium. The pressures facing Curlew are systemic, overwhelming and out of our control. Many of us feel disempowered and for those working on the front line, it can be very hard. “At the moment predation is the biggest problem here, but as soon as you solve that you are in the claws of agriculture,” Pim said, “I saw Curlew disappear 15 years ago from my part of the Netherlands, for similar reasons.”

How to keep positive and hopeful with such a rate of loss? Giving up is not an option for Griet, as long as there are birds nesting and money to keep the project going, she will continue to turn up every morning. We ask how much longer Griet’s funding will last? “Just one more year, then I have to re-apply to my organisation and maybe it will be extended for two more years, but there is no guarantee.” If funding isn’t granted next year, there will be no more work on Curlews in Belgium.

A woman kneeling in a farm field, measuring the toes of a small Curlew chick
Griet measuring a small Curlew chick. (Photo by Ellen Bradley)

Day 3 – Antwerp Province

Another problem facing Curlew was made manifest on this day’s visit to a heathland nature reserve called Grenspark Kalmthoutse Heide, in the Antwerp province in the north of Belgium. Covering over 60km2 it straddles the border with The Netherlands. The Belgium side is mainly sand, heather and wetland, the larger Dutch side is mostly forested.

A photo of a nature reserve
Grenspark Kalmthouste Heide Nature reserve. (Photo by Mary Colwell)

The heath was once a hotspot for Curlew who liked to nest in the heather and feed in the surrounding open land and meadows, but today there are fewer than 5 nests and none seem to be productive, though monitoring is minimal. A recent issue is the nitrification of the heathland due to the intensive fertilisation of farmland.

There is so much nitrogen in the environment from artificial fertiliser, slurry from dairies and manure from chicken farming, that run-off and nitrogen-rich rain are changing the soils, nutrifying fresh water and making it easier for fast-growing grasses to out-compete the heather. It also depletes the calcium in the soil, compromising the ability of snails to make shells and insects to form carapaces, which are food for the birds.

This problem is not restricted to Belgium (see the Curlew Action blog on our visit to The Netherlands in 2023), it is affecting much of Europe. Griet thinks most Curlew have moved off the heathland because nitrification has diminished their food supply, but no one knows for sure. Migration away from heathland is observed in other countries, such as The Netherlands (see the Curlew Recovery partnership blog from 2021).

Excess nitrogen is causing tension across Europe, but farmers see an additional burden to their businesses and livelihoods if they are forced to reduce the amount emitted and protests have been widespread. As society’s awareness about the impacts of intensive farming on the natural world is growing, farmers feel blamed for delivering what society has asked of them - to increase food production post the Second World War. Rowing back from that now is painful and difficult, and Curlews find themselves in the middle of this conflict.

The additional stresses of changing social attitudes, environmental campaigns, shifting political leanings, climate change and the war in Ukraine have made farming the centre of attention, increasing the tension between conservationists and the farming communities, and in many cases making it harder to find cooperation and shared purpose. An increasingly heard narrative is that nature protection is stopping food production – and that is exceedingly damaging.

A photo of a partially flooded nature reserve
Grenspark Kalmthouste Heide Nature reserve with flood water. (Photo by Mary Colwell)

The effect of calcium depletion on soils, plants and invertebrates can result in brittle bones in song birds and crumbly eggs. Griet is worried about the number of Curlew eggs she finds that are failing to hatch or the shells are easily cracked, and wonders if this could be the cause. The same worry has recently been expressed by Natalie Busch (formerly Meyer) in Germany, who told us that whole clutches are failing to hatch (pers com). It is yet another thing to add to the growing list of difficulties faced by Curlews in farmed landscapes.

The penultimate stop of the day was to Turnhouts Vennengebied, more than 700 ha of flower-rich meadows, heathland and wetland managed by Natuurpunt. As soon as we got out of the car the surround-sound of calling Black-tailed Godwits and bubbling Curlews was wonderful, as well as a host of warblers, pipits and other songbirds. There are around 15 pairs of Curlews in this insect-rich and flowery landscape. A large Fox fence had been erected around 70 hectares, which was reassuring to see.

A photo of a fence running alongside a field
A Fox fence erected at Turnhouts Vennengebied. (Photo by Mary Colwell)

Griet was keen to find chicks she had radio tagged a few days ago, but the nest was outside of the fox fence. She walked across a large field to where the electric fence was still in place but failed to find any signals. As Ellen helped An Sofie Vastenavondt (an intern helping Griet) to take the nest fence down, the sky once again threatened thundery rain.

A photo of two women dismantling an electric fence on a reserve
Ellen and An-Sofie taking down the electric fence. (Photo by Mary Colwell)

Determined as ever, Griet carried on searching in fields further away, even young chicks can move large distances very quickly. Rain started to fall which reflected the mood, it looked like this nest had also failed. Then she waved. Hidden in the grass a good way away from their nest site, were two small chicks, all healthy and going strong.

The adults were frantic and were joined by other Curlews, a Black-tailed Godwit and a Shelduck, showing how birds can group together to fend off threats. Working quickly, the chicks were weighed, measured and put back in the grass. The adults calmed down and a sense of relief flooded over our group. At last, some good news. “Well, if they can’t survive here in these meadows, I don’t know what we can do!” she said.

Three people, two of whom are kneeling, in a green field. One of the women is holding a Curlew chick in her hand and taking a photo of it.
Examining one of the Curlew chicks. (Photo by Pim Wolf)

Even within one day, Curlew fieldwork in Belgium is a rollercoaster of emotions, and this day was no exception. The last stop of our trip was to check a nest back at Laterbroeken near Tienen where we started. The eggs had already been incubated for 30 days but showed no sign of hatching. She was concerned there was no sound from the eggs, no cracks, and the eggs had a strange smell. They were still quiet with no pipping. It doesn’t look good.

We left for home early the next day with so many emotions and much food for thought. Deep gratitude to Griet and Pim for taking us to the important Curlew sites and for showing us the reality of her work.

To be continued.

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