Issue 164: 2018 07 26: Snuggling in the Heather

26 July 2018

Snuggling in the Heather

Losing the Curlew.

By J R Thomas

There are moments of such wonderful irony that one just has to laugh.  Conservation, though we should of course be concerned and correct, does have a tendency to produce laughs at guffaw volume.

Owners of diesel cars need a sense of humour; those who remember the extraordinary encouragement given to car manufacturers and even more so, car buyers, to start driving those more economical cleaner diesel cars must at least let out a half humorous groan as they contemplate the devalued piece of scrap parked in their drive.

The price of diesel rose so fast that the financial advantage vanished faster than a Ferrari racing a Fiesta, then (ho, ho, ho) scientists discovered (allegedly) that the polluting effects of diesels was much greater than petrol.  Just to cap it off, the ageing scrap wasn’t even especially economical – not, at least, without some help from the car manufacturers fiddling the testing regime.

Never mind, everything will be electric soon.  Soonish.  Then we can laugh.  When we have built the nuclear power stations to supply the vast increase in power we will soon need.  And if they are not safe; maybe we should rely on wind turbines, even if they do slaughter the bird life we are working so hard to save, and ruin our remaining hard fought over unspoilt landscapes.  How about sea barrages?  Though they might bankrupt us and destroy our river estuaries, at least we will not have to reopen the coal mines.  Though we will need the miners still, digging out lithium and zinc and uranium and other dangerously noxious substances to make the batteries to power this brave new not very clean world.

Michael Gove is a real comedian, you may have noticed, in his commitment to a cleaner world.  So much so that he would like to ban domestic wood burning.  No more toasting toes over the crackling home hearth.  Turn the central heating up and use more electricity – but see above.  At least that extra £20bn for the health service will be useful, treating lots of older and poorer persons with hypothermia from living with no heating…

Complicated, this conserving stuff.  Maybe better to go for a walk on the moors to clear the mind.  But go carefully, you find yourself involved in a fight.  No, not those pesky grouse shooters having a push and shove with anti-shooters.  These particular fisticuffs are between one lot of bird-lovers who want to cuddle curlews, and another lot whose tastes run to hugging hen harriers.  Uh?  Aren’t bird lovers all on the same side?

Curlews are very special birds, the size of wild ducks but with long curved bills, and a range of haunting cries and songs that define a certain mood of Britain’s wilder places.  They swoop and hurtle over the wetlands and bogs of Ireland and over the moors of northern England – about 30% of Europe’s population live in the British Isles.  To our grandparents, if they lived in the more remote places of the British Isles, they were a bird that more than any other created a magical background to their daily lives, from dawn to dusk.  No more though.  The curlew is in very steep decline.  In Ireland they may soon be extinct – a breeding population of perhaps 200,000 fifty years ago reduced to a few hundred now.  Irish conservationists are almost on the point of accepting that they have effectively all gone.

The prognosis in England and in Wales is also poor, though decline is perhaps not irreversible.  The problem with the curlew is that they need a very wide range of habitats.  They need soft ground to stick those curved bills in for food.  They need rough ground with long vegetation (but not too long) to create the simple scrapes in which they nest.  They don’t like woodland nearby because that is where the main predators of their nests lurk – foxes and badgers in particular.  They are quite territorial so need space. They don’t like humans, perhaps fearing the roasting tin still (curlew shooting was banned in the UK in 1982).  The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (“RSPB”) thought that shooting might be the main cause of the decline after the Second World War, but the population has halved since the ban.  In fact, shooting may turn out to be the one thing which is preventing the extinction of this graceful musical bird.  Which is how we meet again the fight between curlew conservers and hawk helpers.

The one place curlews still thrive is on grouse moors.  The conditions and terrain are perfect for them.  They cannot be shot so are free from sudden incursions of lead.  The habitat is heavily protected against all the predators that put their lives and nests so at risk, not least birds of prey, but also foxes and rats.  Humans and dogs,  not predators but disturbers of the peace, are generally discouraged from walking on grouse moors, and there is lots of space to build up big enough colonies to give a diverse breeding stock.

The RSPB is not unaware of the delicious irony that those supreme targets of its ire, grouse moor owners and keepers, are also key to the survival of one of the most threatened birds.  They shuffle uncomfortably at the shooting fraternities reminders that the revival of birds of prey, and the strict regimes which now protect them, certainly will not help the curlew prosper.

So the RSPB has been rather quiet about all this, but one of the leading lights in the curlew conservationist movement, Mary Colwell, has recently published a powerful plea for more to be done to save the curlew.  Two years ago she walked 500 miles across classic curlew country, from the empty bogs of Ireland (empty of curlew that is, there is plenty of machinery removing for heating or gardening purposes what little peat remains), across Wales and Derbyshire and  the Yorkshire moors, to the eastern salt marshes of the North Sea.  Curlews were rare – except on the grouse moors of the Peak District and the Yorkshire Dales.   Ms Colwell – not a natural supporter of great country landowners, it is fair to say – has enough grace and humour to draw attention to this curlew conservation conundrum.  She also points out that great upland owners will not continue this regime of management so helpful to the curlew if they are not allowed to shoot grouse.  If management of the moors is abandoned – and the costs and effort that goes into running our uplands is usually overlooked – then they will change; the heather will go, the predators, both flying and leaping, will arrive, scrub and trees will colonise those great empty spaces, and the curlew will depart.

There is no easy and practical solution to this problem, especially for those who think wildlife management or blood sports are not acceptable.  Easy answers in this world of the eco-system are not always the right answers.  What we are so familiar with and love so much is a complex balance which if we seek to adjust it requires much deep thought and some very fine tuning – and potentially a great deal of money.  In the past our emotions, often from the very best of motives, have not had the expected results (as any hedgehog being eaten by a badger from that booming and now protected species will tell you).  But whatever we do for the curlew, those solutions may come too late.


“Curlew Moon” by Mary Colwell was published in May 2018 by Harper Collins, RRP £16.99

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