Irish curlew

Photo by Annemarie Loof

By Mary Colwell. I can’t think of a more Irish bird than the Curlew, that singer of bitter-sweet songs over fields and bogs that heralds the start of warmer days. Come April, the bubbling call builds into a crescendo of urgent notes, at once sad and ecstatic, and it never fails to stop me in my tracks. Yeats called it one of the oldest cries in the world alongside the water cry and the wind cry.

Curlews have a body the size of a duck with long legs, a long neck, small head and an exquisite, long, downward curving bill. Their seemingly boring brown, grey and cream colouring belies a beautiful pattering which allows the bird to merge into the background of wetlands or the muted colours of field and bog. But it is when curlews sing that they truly stand out, their calls light landscapes, they define farmland, both the curlee, curlee, or the famous bubbling call that rises upwards with the bird as it soars over the breeding grounds. Anyone over the age of 40 will remember these calls well, if younger, the chances are you won’t. There are now only 105 breeding pairs left in Ireland.

To know curlews is to appreciate the emotion and wildness they bring into our lives. It is a tragedy that today so few people hear that song, in fact almost none. Since the 1980s, Irish breeding curlews have declined by a jaw-dropping 98%. The singer-songwriter, David Gray, puts the loss into perspective. In the Irish concerts of his recent White Ladder World tour he appealed for them to be brought back from the brink. “When Packie Bonner saved that penalty in Italia 90, there were over 5,000 breeding pairs, today there are just 105. To lose an ancient magic like this is just unthinkable.” Once they were heard over most farms, now the fields have fallen silent, and Ireland is all the poorer for it.

The dramatic decline in numbers is due to the pressures of an intensifying world. Farming practices have changed beyond recognition since the 80’s, particularly in the production of meat and dairy. The widespread introduction of silage has had a severe impact on ground-nesting birds. The move away from hay cutting in late summer to multiple cuts of fast-growing rye grass to feed cattle, from as early as mid-April in some areas, has been devastating. The mowers now cut the fields as soon as birds lay their eggs in a scrape on the earth.

Curlew Chicks In Hand


If the eggs do survive the machines, they then run the gauntlet of predators like foxes and crows, which take a heavy, unsustainable toll. Modern landscapes support high number of these clever and efficient hunters. Over the 20th century, common predators have burgeoned in number, feeding off human food waste, carrion, sheep afterbirth and dead lambs, and the food put out for livestock. The removal of top predators like eagles, harriers and wolves, which control corvids and foxes, has made things worse. With no natural way of keeping numbers in check, these smaller predators have increased in number everywhere.

The process of taking away the habitat suitable for curlews has been sustained. Historic loss of peat bogs to farmland and to provide fuel was a huge blow to the once-large numbers that nested across central Ireland. Industrial extraction of peat has seen a 99% removal of bogs, which is further degraded by insensitive domestic cutting. More recently, the relentless march of Sitka spruce plantations creates a monoculture of fast-growing, dense woodland that smothers open land and harbours yet more predators. Add to these the in increase in the use of pesticides that remove food for chicks, climate change creating droughts or flooding and human disturbance, and you can see that a perfect storm rages against birds that nest on open ground and that need peace and space to thrive.

Brian Kelly 59e8ubf6yhu Unsplash

The loss of curlews is a tragedy, but it need not be an inevitable slide to extinction. There are ways to bring them back. If future Irish farmers are to hear the call of the curlew, then what happens now is vital.

I live in a city, I have no first-hand experience of the pressures of farming, but I do know that farmers are the answer – it is you on the front line every day. Do you have curlew on your land, now or did you in the past? Can you still hear them calling in the breeding season? Do you want them return? If the answer is yes to any of these, then you are the key to their survival, you hold their future in your hands.

Agri-environment schemes, advice on mowing regimes and compensation payments are available to help farmers to both feed the nation and to protect the wildlife that makes Ireland so special. The actions you can take depend on your land type and location, but the activities beneficial to waders include re-wetting, delaying mowing until the chicks are fledged, sensitive management of livestock to avoid trampling and over-grazing, erecting electric fences around nests, targeted and proportionate predator control, liming the soil to encourage invertebrates, avoiding tree planting near nesting birds, removing unwanted non-native Sitka, and working cooperatively with neighbours to give landscape-scale areas for breeding. All of these direct actions will help turn it around for curlews and other ground-nesting birds, and help is on hand if requested.

Claire Dinning319a7434

Claire Dinning

The time has gone for conflict and division between farming and conservation, we all have to want to save curlews. Unless farmers act now to help this year’s breeding birds fledge young, and prepare the land for the future, Ireland will lose this special breeding bird – and it is happening on our watch. I am asking you to please do what you can to save the Irish curlew, to prevent it slipping away for ever.

For advice, please visit NPWS Farm Plan Scheme and ACRES. These schemes have financial and advisory support to help farmers help nature. There will be a Breeding Waders EIP under the CAP Strategic Plan.




Working for Waders:

Curlew Action,

Curlew Recovery Partnership:


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