Giving curlews a chance


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Posted on May 4, 2020


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Finding eggs

nervousness can travel like breeze
shifting across fields, nudging clouds

 the guard bird circles
as if to embrace safety
or the hope of it

we want to be as invisible as wind
and softer
as we tread the liminal space
between help and harm

sun, sky and the learning of centuries
find perfect form: four speckled eggs
hiding in plain sight

--

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Finding the clutch of curlew eggs was just the first marker in this journey to give the curlew family a greater chance of rearing young. Last week, Rob and I had left with a combination of hope and heavy hearts. Could the clutch make it through 28 days’ incubation?

After we’d found the eggs we called Dave Evans (research officer with the Severn Curlew Project) to ask his advice. Typically, in curlew conservation, an electric fence is erected around the nest to contain an area 25 metres by 25 metres: this can deter ground predators such as foxes and badgers. In Dave’s opinion, it would be the ideal thing to do, although putting up a fence inevitably causes a certain amount of disturbance. We needed to talk to the farmer, James Robinson, about the numbers of foxes known (or thought) to be in the area, wondering if, on balance, putting up a fence would be the thing to do. Might the best thing be just to leave the birds as undisturbed as possible?

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It wasn’t long until the story of the eggs had spread on social media, and one of the responses we had was from Amy Hopley, Nature and Wildlife Officer for Morecambe Bay Partnership. ‘We currently have a fence to spare, so if you like we would be delighted to use it to protect the nest you found! My colleague Tonia is available to come and set up the fence tomorrow, so if you’re interested do get in touch!’ Well, it’s not every day you get that kind of offer. James called Dave and talked things through and the consensus was, Yes. It only takes one fox.

We waited until the weather showed a spell of warmth, with no rain. The aim is to have an electric fence up within thirty minutes, and then leave the site. The sitting bird will fly away when we arrive, we know that for sure, but the quicker we act, the better.

Saturday arrived with clear skies and sunshine and by ten-thirty we’d gathered on the lane by the field gate: Amy, Tonia Armer (working on curlews for the Morecambe Bay Butterfly Conservations Facilitation Fund) and James, who’d arrived on his quad to carry the equipment. Rob and I were joined by Rosa, my daughter. Together our task was to locate the eggs, place the fence posts at five-metre intervals, run the wire in, and clear the grass from the bottom wire to stop the fence earthing and running the battery down too quickly. Our focus was on the job at hand but we were also mindful of the birds, noticing them watching us from the walls and fields around their nest. An unexpected moment of delight was the sight of a pair of hares bursting out of the long grass within ten metres of the curlew’s nest, the impressions they had left in the grass were warm to the touch.

curlew2blog4.jpgImpressions in the grass: where two hares had been lying

After we’d finished we had a chance for a longer chat away from the field. Amy spoke about the risk of extinction to these birds and shared the recent estimate that their numbers have declined by 80% in just a few decades. It was not an optimistic conversation. Tonia spoke about her experience with protecting nests in the Lyth Valley last year: one nest that had been fenced off produced live chicks that fledged. Brilliant. A second one did not succeed.

The future of these birds is on a knife edge. But we all hope that this one small act could make a difference - and we agree that doing something is better than doing nothing. We can’t stop the crows and gulls but this fence will, at least, deter the foxes. I wondered if the fence might provide perching posts for crows, but Tonia assured me that the poles we were using are too thin for this. To help us know whether there are foxes in the area, we’ve placed cameras at the gates to monitor what’s going in and out. And from a distance, Rob and I, and James, who will be letting heifers into the surrounding fields, will keep an eye on the nest. 

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James has noticed only two swallows in his yard this year - the numbers have been going down and down, year on year. It’s a story familiar across the UK. He reflected on this and said that we can’t mourn the loss of the swallows, and blame other factors further afield in southern Europe and Africa, yet sit by and do nothing for the curlews. Now that he knows where the nest is, James can alter his plans and hold back from cutting the grass in that field until after the chicks have fledged (i.e. are able to fly, roughly five weeks after hatching). He’ll also modify the three gates into the field once the eggs have hatched to increase the chance that the chicks stay in that field, away from heifers, and away from mowers (effectively creating a huge curlew pen). It’s a change James can accommodate. If we’d made a guess the nest was in one of four fields he wouldn’t be able to alter his practice in all of them.

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And here lies the issue: how can farmers be supported to change practice in response to the needs of curlews? The greatest threat for these birds lies in their breeding grounds, in the uplands and moorlands. But it takes a dedication of time to find the nests, and actions to protect the young birds have financial implications for farmers. It’s an issue we’ll be thinking and talking about a lot in the coming weeks, and beyond, with our recently found community of curlew enthusiasts. Our deepening connection with these birds has become the focus of our days in these strangely warm and strangely quiet months of 2020’s lockdown.

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More info: James Robinson at Strickley Farm, Curlew Action, Curlew Country

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