In search of the curlew along the Shannon
In 30 years curlews have declined 20% across Europe – and by far more in Ireland
I was beginning to believe that looking for curlews in central Ireland was like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack
Nut and King’s Islands are the largest of the Black Islands, around 20 acres and 14 acres in size respectively. Twenty years ago many curlews would have nested in both places. I have travelled to these islands in Lough Ree, the middle of the three lakes on the Shannon, in search of the curlew.
Eurasian curlews are found across the continent of Europe; there are thought to be around one million birds in all. Many areas they occupy are remote and difficult to access, so we know surprisingly little about this common European bird.
We do know that they are Europe’s largest wading bird. The body is about the size of a mallard duck, but with much longer legs to hold it clear of the water. The small head, supported by a stretchy neck, terminates in an astonishing sickle-shaped bill. They are predominantly brown and grey, but when in flight the white rump and underside flash against the sky.
In winter they occupy the coastlines of northwest Europe, the Mediterranean, Africa, the Middle East, India and southeast Asia. In early spring the coast empties as the European birds go back to the continent, and the British and Irish ones head inland to breed on moors, peat bogs, rough pasture, damp lowland flower-rich meadows and even silage fields.
As Britain and Ireland are home to 25 per cent of breeding Eurasian curlews, these islands are vital for their future.
Over the last 30 years the numbers of curlews have declined by 20 per cent across Europe, but in UK and Ireland losses are much higher. In the Irish Republic there is nothing short of a disaster unfolding before our eyes. In the 1980s there were many thousands of pairs of nesting curlews, today only around 120 remain.
“The islands are the last havens,” says Mark Craven, predator control officer for the National Parks and Wildlife Service. “Only two pairs on Nut Island now, at most, that’s all I’ve seen.”
Last year he and Noel Kiernan, a local farmer and forester, saw five pairs displaying on one of the smaller islands up in the northern area of the lough, but only three stayed to breed. They also found the body of a juvenile, which had been dead for a couple of weeks. It showed no sign of predation, and most likely died of illness or starvation.
We reach an expanse of shore and birds fly around in alarm. Mark and Noel stay back in the trees and point to an area of shingle where a pair of curlews has just laid eggs.
I try to scan the ground quickly, increasingly concerned about the disturbance, but I see no curlews, no clutch of greeny-brown eggs – they really are well hidden. It’s frustrating, but I retreat. The birds have enough problems without their precious eggs being trampled underfoot.
Lough Ree is just one small part of Mark’s patch, which covers various wader-rich locations along the Shannon to as far away as the flooded fields of the Shannon Callows 60km away.
Trying to keep numbers of mink, foxes and crows at a level where ground-nesting birds can stand any chance of breeding successfully is a Herculean task for just one man. He has to rely on the assistance of local gun clubs.
Hunting is a traditional pastime, and there are 926 clubs with 28,000 members throughout the country. Many of these clubs are at the heart of their communities, and background predator control would simply not be possible without their help.
It is not always easy to persuade hunters who prefer waterfowl or game birds to take on the humdrum business of controlling crows and foxes. A competition was set up between local clubs to reduce grey crow numbers around curlew breeding sites, something similar to the one set up for the corncrake with the coveted Corncrake Cup Trophy.
“The whole idea worked very well,” says Mark. “It allowed us to meet with gun clubs and go through trapping methods and humane disposal, as well as giving guidance on the wildlife. And after the first breeding season there was a remarkable difference in crow numbers.
“There is still a large background population constantly infilling the gaps, but at least the curlews have some respite for a few weeks at a vital time of year.”
Predator control is still difficult to discuss. Red fox and grey crow are as much a part of Irish fauna as redshank and curlew, but until the habitat for ground-nesting birds is restored and the natural balance between predator and prey regained, which will take time, there seems to be no alternative but to keep predator numbers down in the breeding season.
Curlews themselves were on the Irish quarry list for the month of September until as late as 2012. By then it was abundantly clear that their numbers were in freefall. Anecdotal reports suggest that, irrespective of their desperate situation, some are still shot by a minority of irresponsible hunters in the autumn.
A visit to the larger King’s Island doesn’t reveal any curlews either, but it does have an intriguing row of traditional whitewashed cottages, complete with beds, tables and chairs. At its peak around 25 people from three families lived on the Black Islands, but the last residents moved out in the mid-1980s, leaving their homes as though they might return any day.
By one back door four old milk bottles have been carefully placed upside down in a white tin bucket, and nearby a discarded metal teapot and saucepan are half hidden by the long grass.
The next day Lough Ree is in a sulk. It is shrouded in mist and hunkered down. There is barely a breath of wind, and the islands have disappeared from view.
Noel and I walk around the still, winter-flooded fields of the mainland, hoping to catch sight of curlews waiting for the water to retreat enough so they can begin nesting. In days gone by there would have been many. Grey crows are now perched in the twisted trees. “Those need to come down,” says Noel. “They are hunting.”
We wade through a magical Avalon world of water-drenched air, water-filled fields and half submerged land. There are no curlews in this watery, transitory world on the edge of Lough Ree, but there is a carcass of a swan ripped apart outside a fox’s den. Not much is left apart from the wings and ribcage, a trail of feathers leads back to the waterline where it must have been taken unawares.
I was beginning to believe that looking for curlews in central Ireland was like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack. There are gaps in the curlew map of Ireland – huge, gaping, curlew-shaped holes. It is a story of societal shift, cultural change, landscape-scale modifications, and a reframing of the connection between land and spirit.
Through curlew eyes Ireland must look increasingly hostile year on year. Just a handful of pairs are dotted around here and there, trying to breed, but thwarted at every turn.
But there are good people trying to help, and that at least is heartening.
Mary Colwell is the author of Curlew Moon, published today by Harpercollins