Hope can hurt, but doesn't die

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Posted on May 15, 2020

Phone rings ... 
It’s James. 
I’m afraid I’m the bearer of bad news.


His words plant a picture in my head: the hard-won scrape in the grass, shaped just right for a curlew’s sitting form, surrounded by soft spears of green, clovers, dandelions, and buttercups, deserted. A fragment of shell the only thing remaining  … I found no words, at first, just a kind of a squeak, a thin and half-formed ‘no’


It wasn’t the call we wanted to receive. It certainly wasn’t the scene James wanted to witness. But there you have it. It’s the reality. James and I talked for a while. I felt shocked, but admired his positivity. We did what we could, we tried. From all the evidence - no tracks in the grass, no shots of foxes or badgers on the cameras - it seems the curlews' eggs were probably taken by carrion crows, or gulls. There are so many of these wily birds around, and any egg makes a tasty meal.

Birds’ nests get predated all the time, Tonia reassured me when I called her later. It’s best, she says, not to get too involved. And she’s right. Phew - this curlew-watching business has become an emotional investment for us and yes, we had, foolishly probably, begun to imagine fluffy baby curlews wandering through the long grass under the watchful eyes of their parents. We had got ahead of ourselves.

curlew3blog4.jpgThe single fragment of shell found in the nest.

The day after speaking to James, Rob and I headed out to see the nest. It felt important to witness the emptiness. I had expected that to be the worst part of this whole journey but it wasn’t. On our walk into the field we saw six or seven other curlews, some in flight, and some grazing. We watched a pair on the ground, mirroring one another in a kind of dance for a full five minutes: tails up, heads bobbing, turning left to right, and right to left. And two birds rose silently from patches of long grass.


All of this felt like hope, renewed. So the next day we walked up again, suspecting that we might be able to get an idea of another nest location. There was no evidence, but there was something equally positive. Binoculars are brilliant in bringing the distance into view, and there, a couple of fields away, was a single curlew behaving in a way we hadn’t witnessed before. When it was joined by another curlew, we saw something else new. The two birds sidled up to one another and, rubbing flanks, turned around a few times in perfect synchrony. And then they mated. So, who knows what this might bring? They may be the  birds that lost their eggs, or another pair - regardless, they’re up for a second try. It’s a positive, and we’re holding on to it.

Another positive is the emergence of a WhatsApp group that Tonia has started to bring people together from across this local area, the South Lakes, who are, like us, keeping an eye on curlews (and lapwings, and of course we are happy to hear about them too). Messages are flying back and forth about the birds, about nests and eggs and about protection measures (electric fences in place, and farmers deciding not to cut grass). The emoticons often say more than the words - we’re all hoping that there’ll be at least some success for this year’s birds.

The thing is, hope is powerful, and it has a tendency to keep on keeping on. In reality though, the flame of hope can only stay burning if there’s also action to change a situation, and to improve the possibility of success. This is what we’re really standing for - not just the curlews having a chance this year, but the system of support and encouragement for farmers and landowners to be in a position to effectively improve the situation for these and other ground-nesting birds.

One pair of birds may seem like a small thing, but they don’t exist in isolation. The curlews we’ve been watching, the eggs they lost, and the chicks they may (or may not) raise are part of something bigger. They have become a metaphor: for the fragility of life, for interconnected systems, for the vulnerability of each small thing struggling in the face of rapid change, and for the potential of decisive and collaborative action that could really make a difference.


notes ... 

I wake with heavy heart, eggs and future gone,
feel all the small things stacking up and tumbling. 

It is hard to keep hope, hard to find faith
that things can change in a way
that pulls the pieces back together.

No broken egg can be fixed
to keep the life

There can only ever be the next attempt,
and the next, and the next …
one following the other as if with blind hope.

When circumstances don’t change
the equation can never add up.

We watch two curlews courting, holding hope
without any power to change their world

except by tugging the heart strings of people
who may be able to do


What was lost.The four eggs from ten days previously.


For the back story and more information on curlews head to this blog post.


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