Curlew numbers rising as conservation targets are being met

Minister Malcolm Noonan to announce next steps in conservation programme in ‘very near future’

Efforts to save the curlew from extinction in Ireland are working, according to the annual report of the Curlew Conservation Programme.

The curlew is a large native wading bird, with long legs and a long down-curved bill. It was once synonymous with the Irish landscape, its shrill cries inspiring the poetry of WB Yeats, among others.

The report of the Curlew Conservation Programme, a partnership between the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Department of Agriculture, was published on Tuesday. It documents that 42 chicks reached fledging stage in 2023, up from 19 in 2022.

A total of 38 pairs were confirmed breeding in nine geographical areas where the programme operates – the Stacks Mountains in Kerry, Lough Corrib North in Galway, Lough Ree (Roscommon/Westmeath), North Roscommon/Mayo, Mid-Leitrim, North Monaghan, Donegal, Sliabh Aughties (Clare Galway) and Laois/Kildare. Another 10 pairs are considered “possible” breeders. There are just 100 breeding pairs remaining across Ireland, the report said.


Over the last 30 years, the curlew has suffered a catastrophic decline in Ireland with numbers falling by 98 per cent. It was predicted breeding curlews could be extinct in Ireland by 2026.

The decline was ascribed to changes in landscape and land-use, with the wet, marginal land curlews likely being depleted and made inhospitable.

However, following the setting up of the Curlew Conservation Programme in 2017, annual targets for conservation have been met.

The final year of the programme has seen the largest number of young curlew fledged into the wild since it began in 2017.

This has been attributed to the more widespread use of “headstarting” – a practice that involves collecting curlew eggs from wild birds’ nests and incubating them in a controlled environment until they hatch. The chicks are reared in pens until they are ready for release back into the wild.

While the practice of headstarting shows encouraging signs in supporting a greater number of chicks, the report notes it does not address the underlying issue of habitat loss and degradation and long-term viability of the population.

Dr Barry O’Donoghue, of the National Parks and Wildlife Service who led the programme said the curlew remains one of the “greatest conservation challenges of our time”.

He said, “we ultimately need to restore the environment upon which these birds rely and this includes wider issues even beyond immediate ecological considerations”.

Minister for State at the Department of the Environment Malcolm Noonan said practical measures can be taken to stave off the extinction of the curlew. He said “we need to ramp these efforts up significantly, while also addressing wider land use changes. We will be announcing detailed plans to do just this in the very near future, building on the solid foundations that the Curlew Conservation Programme has provided”.

News of the increase in numbers of the curlew follows news from Birdwatch Ireland on Monday that numbers of woodpeckers are increasing dramatically across the island.

Brian Burke of Birdwatch Ireland said numbers were now at several hundred nests, when the bird was not known to nest here at all, 20 years ago. He said woodpeckers were signs of healthy woodlands.

Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien is an Irish Times journalist