Practical Steps To Protect Enchanting Bird

Ian Cole, RSPB: "It's imperative we don't stop now"
Colin Petch
March 14, 2024

DEFRA’s Farming in Protected Landscapes (FiPL) is a grant programme that supports farmers, land managers and people who manage land in our protected landscapes, (National Parks, National Landscapes [AONBs] and Norfolk Broads) as part of the UK Government’s Agricultural Transition Plan for England. 

An integral piece of a complex jigsaw multiple stakeholders are now engaging with, following our European uncoupling - and changes to funding for agriculture - FiPL’s brief and reach is broad - and in our North of England Uplands, the opportunity to access funding for environmental and conservation projects is having a dramatic effect on habitat and wildlife species.

The aim of the programme is to help protect our exceptional and cherished places, while also supporting our local communities - and so, on Saturday 9 March, Mag North joined a group of committed Eurasian Curlew supporters and activists at historic Brimham Hall Farm in Nidderdale, North Yorkshire, to learn how FiPL funding is protecting this iconic bird - and its ground-nesting cousins, while at the same time providing resources to support our farmers in fulfilling a role they’ve arguably done for decades: namely producing the food we need - and protecting the natural habitats that represent their homes and workplaces.

Data suggests that one quarter of the global Eurasian Curlew population calls the UK ‘home’. Current estimates indicate that there are approximately 30,000 pairs. However ongoing monitoring data show that this population has been in long-term decline since the 1970s and has almost halved in the UK over the last 20 years. Many colonies are on the verge of local extinction.

Britain also supports some 125,000 wintering curlew, numbers of which have declined by more than 25% in 25 years. Many of these birds breed in continental Europe. As a result of Europe-wide population declines, curlew is listed as vulnerable to extinction in Europe, and globally, is considered near threatened.

There are a number of reasons for the decline in curlew numbers and the reduction in breeding success: Increase in predators is clearly a major factor, with domestic dogs, crows, badgers and foxes among recorded threats. The reforestation of marginal hill land is removing breeding habitat and changes in farming practice affects habitat quality. As with many other species, climate change also represents real and present danger.

Along with other agencies and groups, Shropshire-based organisation Curlew Country runs an extensive, ongoing nest monitoring programme and can evidence that failure at egg stage is key to this wading bird’s struggle for survival. After trialling the use of protective electric fencing around nest sites, statistics demonstrate that this intervention is having a tangible impact on breeding/fledging success rates - and Saturday’s Nidderdale event served as an important training and sharing of best practice session, with professionals and enthusiasts from Lancashire, Northumberland and Cumbria joining Yorkshire experts to learn more about deploying electric fence systems at identified nest sites.

Led by Nidderdale National Landscape FiPL Officer Matthew Trevelyan and supported by his colleague Maisie Griffiths, the day attracted in excess of 40 wellied individuals who are committed to keeping the iconic sight and sound of the curlew in our uplands.

Maisie Griffiths From Nidderdale Natural Landscape
Maisie Griffiths From Nidderdale Natural Landscape

Maisie: “Our role includes promoting and managing grants to help develop the land for wildlife. The Darley Beck Project [a curlew conservation initiative] is really interesting for us because it's wildlife based.”

A Harper Adams Wildlife Conservation Management graduate, Maisie’s knowledge and skill-set make her an effective point-of-contact and problem solver for both Nidderdale farmers and the rural community as a whole.

“It's difficult for farmers to just say, ‘Yeah, you can have my field’ without funding. Grants are an integral part of farm business income and we want to encourage them [farmers] to apply. And conservation and farming shouldn’t be pitted against each other - the aim for us is a blended approach to food production and protecting the environment.

“It’s important for us to help farmers understand that they can be a part of developing the landscape in a way that helps wildlife, but at the same time they can run a business and protect their livelihood.”

Hilary McGuire is the Conservation Advisor for the RSPB within the Forest of Bowland National Landscape and on Saturday her input was invaluable.

The RSPBs Forest of Bowland Hlary McGuire
Hilary McGuire - RSPB Forest of Bowland

Working on a day-to-day basis with farmers, land owners and school groups, Hilary also runs a volunteer survey project: “We survey over 70 farms in the area and that's all done by volunteers. We have this partnership with farmers locally and in the last few years we’ve moved into monitoring and protection of curlews in particular, but we do actually work with other species as well periodically. I also advise farmers on things like agri schemes and how to access other funding to do that work.

“The Environmental Land Management deal and scheme has been kind of drip-fed over the last few years, so there’s a lot of keeping people up to speed with what their options are, as they transition from the current scheme into the new scheme, it's quite complicated.

“And it’s difficult for farmers considered to have High Nature Value farms - who might have almost maxed-out on existing schemes. They're still losing their basic [Single Farm] payment, but there's nothing really as yet that's coming in to fill that gap. For those who have been farming more ‘conventionally’ and are looking to go down a more environmental route now - there are some quite good options available. It’s a mixed bag.”

A Nidderdale Plastic Curlew With A Clutch Of Hen's Eggs

And in her role as a Wader specialist, Hilary is cautiously optimistic about the situation in Bowland:

“In Bowland, we're fortunate, we seem to have a relatively stable population of curlew and oystercatcher on well-managed farms. We're able to do some longer-term trend analysis, but again we're working with farmers who are keen and who are doing their best for waders. Obviously we can't really count the farms that we don't work with, because they may be farming more intensively. 

“We are looking at reductions in lapwing numbers despite all the best efforts, but it's a slower decline in Bowland than what we're seeing nationally.”

And like Nidderdale - The Forest of Bowland is close to a number of urban centres and benefits from the support of a healthy volunteer cohort. But is enough being done to encourage and reach-out to minority groups to access and participate in conservation activities?

Hilary: “We get a lot of people who are retired, which is understandable because they've obviously got more spare time. We work with quite a number of students - but I still don't think we're doing enough, really. One of the goals of the RSPB is to have a more diverse representation of community volunteers. But practically, it's hard with our volunteer role -  you have to have access to your own vehicle because of the remote nature of our work - which obviously excludes a huge proportion of the population. 

“At the moment I don't have a way around it, but I wouldn't say the problem is specific to the RSPB. What I've read online of other people's lived experiences - it's hard when you're the one that stands out. So if you're trying to join a project and then you realise that, ‘well, I'm the only person who looks like me’, then that's kind of hard.”

Young Farmers

Sean is a Nidderdale farmer whose family have worked to protect ground-nesting birds on their land for as long as he can remember - but feels there is still a disconnect between the efforts of farmers and the understanding of the wider community.

“We get a lot of lapwing - and we always mark the nests when we find them, so I thought I’d come along today to look at the electric fencing idea. When I was a kid, my dad would just put a fencing post near a nest.”

Nidderdale Farmer Sean
Nidderdale Farmer Sean

And Sean is certain that in spite of the sometimes bad-press silage cutting gets because of the impact on ground-nesting species, his family isn’t unique in looking out for and taking positive action around nests:

“Everyone I know is doing something, but maybe not all the same. Maybe it's at varying degrees of how much they put into it, but no one wants to run over a nest. Accidents will happen - and people operating machinery might miss a bird flying. But no-one is just mowing nests through lack of concern.”

It’s fair to say that most of us - as members of the public - don't fully appreciate the enormity of pressure on farmers to be responsible for our food production - and simultaneously be guardians of the best type of environmental practice in our landscape.

Sean: “We’ve been able to engage [with conservation] in part because we're quite an extensive system. Our farm is not very intensive. We’re grazing cows now. We're milking cows. We calve in the autumn, but I think it’s different for Intensive systems [producing as much food as possible, in the most efficient way]. 

“Farmers can't just plough up a field and destroy nests, but the people that aren't farming need to realise we still need to make a living and feed the nation.

“There are a lot of farms around here, with families that have been farming for hundreds of years - and it’s a volatile time for agriculture. But everyone is doing their level-best - and that’s why I’m here today. The lapwing and the curlew matter.”

Getting To Grips

Another key conservationist that had travelled to Brimham Hall Farm on Saturday was Ian Cole. Ian is a RSPB Project Officer for Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland and Geltsdale in Cumbria.

With a role funded by the European Commission LIFE Programme (the funding mechanism for cross-continent, joined-up environmental and climate action), the future is currently uncertain - but financing the continuation of Ian and his team’s work is absolutely vital.

As part of a dedicated RSPB conservation team, he oversees a group of approximately thirty volunteers on Hadrian’s Wall and is responsible for the public engagement work within the project area. Ian also works with the volunteers and farmers further west at RSPB Geltsdale, arranging for habitat works to be carried out on farms, in addition to close involvement with nest protection and monitoring, which is done by the reserve staff.

After a working week building scrapes on northern farms, it was a imperative Ian headed south to share his experience with the Nidderdale event: 

“You can see how passionate the farmers are about protecting the curlew. A lot of them have mentioned the decline of lapwing over the last decade and I wish that something had been done like this [project] for them ten years ago. Hopefully we’re setting a precedent because curlew are such an iconic bird and so many people are passionate about saving them.”‍

Ian feels there is a certain symmetry and synergy with the changes to funding for agriculture and the increase in environmental schemes: “It's imperative that we don’t stop now. We've worked for four years to build up or help the population [of curlew] stabilise, to take away that assistance to me is a bit of a folly. You need continued support for the birds. And I know the farmers we've worked with are obviously very keen to keep managing the land in the way that we've done this last couple of years with them, putting scrapes in or keeping the rush under control. How do you spread the word from those farmers into the wider landscape? That’s the challenge.” 

In addition to his encyclopaedic environmental knowledge, Mr Cole was also sporting an incredible ‘Curlew knitted hat’ that received a significant amount of love on Saturday. We understand that his sister-in-law can take the credit for the creation - and it’s likely she’s going to have to share the pattern over the coming weeks.

The RSPBs Ian Cole and Nidderdale National Landscapes Matthew Trevelyan
The RSPBs Ian Cole and Nidderdale National Landscapes Matthew Trevelyan

As an important and informative session concluded on Saturday afternoon, with curlew calling all around us in beautiful Nidderdale - and everyone eager to decamp to the pub - it fell to Matt Trevelyan to perfectly sum-up what I think we might have all been thinking: “It’s the musical thing with curlews. I bang on about it all of the time. The curl of a curlew is a mixture of major and minor notes. If you’ve read Mary Colwell - you’ll know that.

“There is suffering and joy, isn’t there? Pain and sorrow and joy. And so I think that’s quite profound. I think that’s what stirs you when you hear them. I tell people that they are clearly magic. I think they enchant us.”