Reflections on Belgium Curlews

This is the second of two blog posts from Curlew Action's visit to Belgium. Read the first one - a diary detailing the different locations visited.

Headstarting

Belgium’s Eurasian Curlew population is supported by the small but effective headstarting project based at the wildlife rescue centre. It is a service offered for free to Natuurpunt, and this year (as of May 23) they already have hatched nine chicks and there are more eggs in the incubator. The chicks are fed on dried mealworms and insects with added live buffalo worms that wriggle, making all the food move, which helps the birds to identify it as prey.

A photo of a small Curlew chick at the rescue centre, standing by a bowl of insects and a bowl with water in.
Curlew chick at a rescue centre. (Photo by Mary Colwell)

So far this year there are 24 Curlew eggs and chicks in the centre, which may seem small, but with a total population in Belgium of only around 200 pairs, it is significant. Their fledging success rate is over 90%. The Curlews are just part of a range of animals being cared for at the centre, ranging from wolves to avocets. The Curlews are pitched in with the rest in a practical, working atmosphere.

There are headstarting projects in Ireland, Poland, Belgium, Germany and England, and all of them take a different approach and the cost varies enormously. The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) is writing a paper on Curlew headstarting in Europe which should be published at the end of 2024, and Curlew Action will hold a one-day webinar on European headstarting, so please look out for announcements and please join us.

Cost of a Curlew

When France shot a Curlew from Belgium, an estimate was made by BIOVAL (a European forum for environmental justice) of the ‘cost’ of losing one bird, which came in at around €18,000. The calculation, which is designed to be used in court of law, includes one Curlew’s contribution to culture, human well-being and ecological significance.

For a bird raised in captivity in a rescue centre, there is an additional cost of €1,700. It is a fascinating way to approach compensation for loss.

The Scoring Manual states:

The methodology aims to provide a practical and transparent way of calculating the monetary compensation that could be asked in case a species gets killed or wounded to the extent that recovery is not possible. Two things are important to keep in mind:

    1. This amount for compensation is not the exchange value of the species, nor a reflection of its market value. This value is a reflection of the different aspects and intrinsic qualities of the species, scaled to a negotiated acceptable monetary amount. Valuation of a species is not the same as privatization or commodification but the danger hereof is clear, this is not the aim of BIOVAL.
    2. This compensation is not the punishment of the crime of killing the animal but an amount that can be demanded by the court to restore the species or nature in general. On top of this amount, a fine can be demanded but this is outside the jurisdiction of this formula and up to the judge to rule.

This is surely a subject for much more in-depth discussion and a Curlew Action webinar.

Predation

Predation of eggs and chicks is huge and unsustainable. Most eggs are taken before hatching, probably by Foxes and Crows. Research in Germany and The Netherlands shows that 60% of radio tagged chicks are predated within a week.

In Flanders, Griet lost 90% of her chicks in a week. Electric fencing around nests increases chick numbers but does not help once the chicks leave the nest area after a few days.

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

Predator control is a difficult subject, and many wildlife conservation organisations are reluctant to discuss it. But, if Curlew are to survive, we must have a practical and measured approach to predator control, both lethal and non-lethal. There is no lethal control in Belgium at all, electric fences are the only protection for eggs and chicks before they disperse. Fox numbers across Europe soared once rabies was brought under control and there are high populations of corvids.

The intensive land use, both urban and rural, supplies lots of food, as does game bird release, but what we do about it is driven by emotional rhetoric rather than science. It seems in intractable problem, but one we all must face to save declining species that suffer high levels of predation.

European Curlew Population

There are around 100 pairs of Curlews in Ireland, 200 in Poland and 200 in Belgium. Wales has probably 300. I suspect the European population census for Curlew is much lower than previously thought. At present it is estimated to be around half a million individuals, It is time for a realistic re-assessment.

A nearly-fledged Curlew chick being held in a human hand.
Good to see – a nearly-fledged Curlew chick. (Photo by Mary Colwell)
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