The Eurasian Curlew is such an important indicator of the health of landscapes, not just in the very western end of its range in the UK and Ireland, but right across Europe. This is a bird that breeds on the wet peat bogs of Southern Ireland and across the wild steppes of Siberia; it is at home in a wildflower-rich meadow in Gloucestershire and on the wet mires of Finnish forests. In the winter months curlews can be found feeding on the mudflats of southern Portugal, along the rocky coasts of Cornwall and on golf courses in Ireland. These large wading birds use landscapes, they live across whole continents, and for that reason we need to look out for them right across Europe.
Photo credit: John Fox
We know many of the birds that spend the winter months along UK coasts breed in Finland, Poland, Sweden and Norway. We know our own breeding birds spend the winter in Ireland, Spain and Portugal. Mike Smart, our trustee and fieldworker, tells me that over 60% of the winter ringing recoveries in the West Country are from Finland, the proportion is higher than that in the Wash. We cannot think of the Curlews we see in the UK as ‘ours’, they are true Europeans, birds we share with our neighbours across the seas to the west and the east. To truly protect Curlews we must think Europe-wide and understand what is happening across their range.
Curlews are meadow birds, they breed in the insect-rich, flower-rich meadows of farmland where the soil is soft and the sward is varied. In Germany, the name for Curlews is Brachvogel – meadow bird. Their nests are hidden by the long grass, and they feed their chicks in shorter vegetation which is full of spiders, beetles and flies. These are the meadows that have now been drained, fertilised and transformed into either cereal fields or fast-growing grasses for silage, which is cut multiple times a year when the nests are full of eggs and chicks. Gone is the diversity and nuance of vegetation and gone are birds such as Curlews, Corn Buntings and Skylarks. The loss of meadows has been widespread across Europe as the demand for milk and meat has grown.
The production of raw milk on EU farms was an estimated 161.0 million tonnes in 2021, which represents a year-on-year increase of 0.7 million tonnes.
We drink a lot of milk and eat a lot of beef. Those animals need to be fed all year round, and that comes from grass. Ground nesting birds that use farmland to raise their young are in the midst of this intensive production.
In more upland areas which are less intensively farmed, the rough grazing land is ideal for nesting Curlews. In the UK this land below the heather moorland holds up to 70% of all the UK’s Curlews as well as 50% of breeding Lapwings and 25% of Oystercatchers. It is vital habitat for breeding waders, yet the area most targeted for tree planting to mitigate climate change. Considered ‘unproductive’ and ‘marginal’ it is favoured over the richer farmland in the lowlands. Under the European Green Deal, the EU biodiversity strategy for 2030 commits to planting at least 3 billion additional trees in the EU by 2030. The loss of ‘marginal’ habitat is a serious issue which needs collaborative, constructive planning across sectors.
Sitka spruce in Leithope Forest, Scottish Borders. Credit: Chris Strickland / Alamy Stock Photo.
Farmed, forested and developed landscapes hold high numbers of generalist predators such as crows and foxes, intelligent hunters that eat dwindling numbers of waders. In some areas, the predation rate of eggs and chicks is 100%. Predators and Curlews have lived together for millions of years, it is the recent modification of landscapes that has driven an increase in the numbers of predators and an imbalance in ecosystems.
Europe is a spectacular and varied collection of countries, but all of them are modified to provide for Europe’s 750 million people. We place high demands on the land for food, housing, industry, mining, energy infrastructure and development. Somehow, Curlews have to work around us or fit into the gaps. Many countries are actively working on finding solutions, helping Curlews thrive in otherwise hostile land. We have a lot to learn from them, both in terms of learned best practice and science, and we can contribute too. We may have left the EU, but the birds haven’t, and working together is the only way to succeed in holding onto precious wildlife.
Curlew Action is developing links across Europe to find out more about how Curlews are faring and how we can help raise awareness of their needs. The more people know about what curlews and other breeding waders need to thrive, the better we can form positive partnerships and form good working relationships with many different sectors. Working from a full picture is the only way forward, silo thinking is damaging. Curlew Action is part of this big picture, building bridges, sharing information, encouraging partnerships and bringing into focus how Curlew conservation fits in to a fast-developing world.