The first time I watched a curlew fly by when undertaking a bird survey was a great moment. With its tell-tale long, curved beak, long legs and large size it was unmistakable. Its call is well-known and is the origin of its onomatopoeic name – it’s what the call sounds like. Snowdonia Society staff and volunteers who answered the request for help, have been privileged to be involved with the RSPB’s curlew work in Conwy county this year, undertaking habitat, predator and bird surveys. The project is called Cri’r Gylfinir which translates to ‘cry of the curlew’ in English.
Cylfinir is just one of twelve names for curlew in Welsh! This shows how common they once were. You might have heard of chwibanogl y mynydd or Pegi pig hir.
Most of Wales’ curlews that are seen on the coast in winter come from the north-east, including north England, Scotland, Russia and Finland. In comparison, a far smaller number visit over the spring and summer to breed in our upland areas (and then fly south-west to Ireland, France or Spain for the winter). As far, far more curlews visit Wales’ coast to over-winter compared to those that come to breed in our uplands, you might, like me, not have known of the decline. I often used to see curlews every winter, wading around and poking their bills in the water in a flooded field in Newgale, Pembrokeshire, near where I used to live.
In Wales, numbers of curlews that breed here decreased by 69% from 1995 to 2018. If the current decline continues at the same rate, in ten years’ time there will no longer be a sustainable breeding population of curlews in Wales – that’s by 2033.
Not enough curlew chicks are surviving to adulthood: specifically, on average, only 0.2 chicks of a typical brood of 3 or 4 eggs currently survive to fledging stage every year. To maintain the breeding population as it is, that average should be 1.2 chicks surviving every two years. To describe it another way, each pair needs a new chick to survive every other year, but current chick survival is much lower than that and our population of breeding curlews is aging.
Why are chicks not surviving?
It is not known for certain, but the Cri’r Gylfinir project, halfway through its four years of funding from EU LIFE, provides valuable data (through surveys and monitoring nests) to understand the reasons. Various factors may play a part, including drainage of boggy land, climate change, the switch over time to producing silage rather than hay, which means grass is cut earlier in the year, high numbers of carrion crows and foxes, and plantation woodlands (which provide shelter for predators) situated right beside curlew habitats. The project entails surveying, monitoring, and appropriate management and restoration of habitats.
The Ysbyty Ifan and Hiraethog area, Conwy county, is one of just five sites in the UK (and the only one in Wales) chosen for the RSPB’s breeding curlew work. Its heather moorlands, blanket bogs and grazed upland grassland and ffriddoedd makes it an important area for breeding curlews. Curlews require both long vegetation in which to hide from predators and grazed open areas for chicks to run around in, shallow puddles for chicks with their shorter bills and deeper pools for adults to forage in. The fantastic farmers who manage these habitats keep them in an ideal condition, working with the National Trust. The project staff have been working long hours over the breeding season, identifying nests and monitoring curlew broods.
Curlews are an ‘indicator species’ which means that where curlews are present in a habitat then that habitat is likely to be in a healthy condition. Therefore, success in reversing the decline in breeding curlews will also benefit populations of other species including lapwings and golden plovers, whose numbers are also under threat.
We hope to report on a healthier picture in years to come!
Inspired? Why not click here to find out more. You can also look out for RSPB stalls at local fetes and fairs this summer and go and say hello!