The Eurasian Curlew is the largest wading bird in Europe, instantly recognisable on winter estuaries or summer upland moors by their long slender, downcurved bills, mottled brown plumage and evocative bubbling call. Coastal numbers build up from July and reach a peak in January and February, before the birds relocate to upland moors to breed.
The official number of breeding pairs in the UK is put at 66,000, which is thought to be around 28 per cent of the total breeding population. However, Scotland has recorded a 60 percent decline in the species over the last 20 years, whilst the figures here in Ireland are even more alarming. Curlews are also declining more widely across their global breeding range and consequently, their IUCN status is ‘near threatened’.
Following concerns about suspected severe declines in the population of breeding Eurasian Curlew, National Parks and Wildlife Service commissioned a national survey in the Irish Republic between 2015 and 2017. The primary objective of the survey was to quantify a minimum population estimate for the Republic of Ireland and record the locations of breeding territories. All available records of Curlew from preceding breeding seasons since 2007 were collated and suitable habitats within a 3-km radius of each of these points was surveyed. In total, 138 breeding pairs of Curlew were recorded on the survey sites. Based on extrapolations from the previous population estimates, this represents a population decline of 96% in less than 30 years. Confirmation of the severity of decline led to the establishment of a Curlew Task Force in January 2017, and a Curlew Conservation Programme aimed at increasing the productivity of remaining Curlew pairs.
The key issue for breeding birds is habitat loss. Agricultural intensification of upland farmland and moorland e.g. drainage and reseeding, is also likely to have been important in causing past declines in breeding populations. A review of the associations between Curlew and their habitats suggest that conservation action needs to focus on habitat restoration and reducing the impacts of predators. The latter, at least in the recovery phase.
In this context, the Curlew Conservation Programme in Ireland is focusing as a pilot on seven of the most important areas for breeding Curlew, including the Stack’s Mountains in Kerry, Lough Ree, Roscommon/Mayo, Leitrim, North Monaghan, Donegal and Lough Corrib. In each of these areas, local teams are surveying for Curlew, engaging in nest protection efforts and liaising with landowners.
In summary, there are undoubtedly challenges ahead for this enigmatic, upland species. However, research has shown that carrying out meaningful and robust science, restoring habitat and controlling predators are key. In turn, collaborative partnerships between landowners and environmental conservation groups across Britain and Ireland, can only be beneficial.
Birdwatch Ireland – Radical changes for agriculture and biodiversity proposed
Brown et al. (2015) National survey of breeding Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata in the Republic of Ireland, 2015–2017. British Birds 108: pp. 660–668
O’Donoghue et al. (2019) National survey of breeding Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata in the Republic of Ireland, 2015–2017. Wader Study 126: pp 43-48.
The 2015-17 survey in Ireland was commissioned by the National Parks and Wildlife Service. Confirmation of the severity of the decline and the full report can be read here:
RSPB – Curlew Conservation