The haunting cry of the curlew has long been embedded in Irish literary culture as well as in individual memory. Yet, with the breeding population dropping by a staggering 96 per cent since the 1980s, we are left to wonder whether Ireland’s future generations will have any more than these tales to rely on when learning about this iconic bird.
With the inaugural World Curlew Day held on April 21st, the focus was on the plight of the Eurasian curlew in Ireland, as well as that of other curlew species worldwide.
In 2011, BirdWatch Ireland carried out the first survey in Ireland specifically focused on breeding curlew populations. These were conducted in Donegal and Mayo as part of the Halt Environmental Loss Programme (Help), a cross-Border initiative funded through the EU Interreg IVA scheme. Just eight pairs of breeding curlew were found and it was estimated that there were fewer than 200 pairs nationwide compared to an estimation of 5,000 in the early 1990s. The first national survey was commissioned by the National Parks and Wildlife Service in 2015 and 2016. It found numbers to be lower than estimations, with fewer than 150 breeding pairs discovered. Without action, it was predicted that the curlew will be extinct as a breeding species in Ireland within a decade.
This may surprise those who see curlew flocks between late July and early spring. However, these birds are likely to be wintering from Britain and Scandinavia whereas the breeding population can be found between April and early June.
"Without a doubt, the primary cause of population decline is habitat loss and degradation. This mainly occurred in the second half of the last century with things such as widespread agricultural change, drainage and restriction of bogland, loss of marshy pastures and afforestation," explains Senior Conservation Officer with BirdWatch Ireland Dr Anita Donaghy. "As a result, curlew habitats have become more fragmented. This degradation and fragmentation has had a knock-on effect and the population are now more vulnerable to predation."
BirdWatch Ireland established a year-long "Cry of the Curlew" campaign in 2011 in an effort to raise money to fund nationwide curlew research. Since 2012, they've also been calling on the Government to take action. These calls were finally heard in 2017 when Minister Heather Humphreys announced the establishment of a Curlew Task Force aimed at saving the curlew from national extinction.
Independent chairman of the Curlew Task Force Alan Lauder says their primary role is "to bring together all relevant stakeholders involved with curlew conservation across the country". In total, 30 people attend Task Force meetings, including groups and individuals from farming, turf-cutting, conservation, governmental, research and various other backgrounds.
“Our aim is to form approaches to first, halt their decline and then restore populations as quickly as possible,” says Lauder, who chairs the task force on a voluntary basis.
The Curlew Conservation Programme was established by the NPWS in 2017. This action programme is currently focused on seven areas: Stacks Mountains, Lough Ree, Lough Corrib, north Roscommon, Leitrim, Monaghan and Donegal.
"In each area we have a "curlew action team" with a "curlew champion". These teams are liaising with local communities and landowners. Most of the people we have employed are local people themselves, with a blend of backgrounds including farming, hurling and tourism," explains head of the Agri-Ecology Unit with NPWS Dr Barry O'Donoghue, who manages the programme.
Tasks carried out by action teams include field surveys and working with landowners to protect nests from predation. Habitat improvement measures such as the removal of gorse and blackthorn scrub from the Lough Ree area were also carried out.
For such a programme to be successful, O’Donoghue says it must be appropriate for curlew and farmer needs, offer supports to landowners, promote local pride and ownership in our natural heritage and ultimately, lead to results.
Researchers from UCD are currently monitoring the Curlew Conservation Programme to evaluate what measures are positively affecting curlew productivity. The benchmark figure for sustainable curlew population growth is 0.5 chicks per pair.
“Our aim is to ascertain what aspects of land use are leading to success,” explains UCD lecturer in wildlife conservation and zoonotic epidemiology Dr Barry McMahon. “Areas around the lakes such as Lough Ree are showing productive signs but we don’t have the data to go with this yet so it’s too early to say for sure.”
McMahon, who is principal investigator for the research project, says productivity is likely due to the lower levels of predation in these areas. As a ground-nesting bird, curlews are highly vulnerable.
The Department of Agriculture introduced a specific curlew conservation option in the agri-environment scheme Glas in 2015, while a curlew conservation project granted funding under the European Innovation Partnerships (EIP) Initiative will soon commence in Galway.
While praising all positive moves, Donaghy says more needs to be done. This includes the provision of additional resources to establish additional Curlew Action Teams elsewhere, as well as better protection from development for the curlew at a national level.
“BirdWatch Ireland regrets that the government didn’t take action when the problem was brought to their attention in 2012. The curlew population has declined even further since then. Now it makes it very difficult to build a sustainable population,” she adds.
Though not directly involved with the projects, birding expert Eric Dempsey has been keeping a close eye. While fully praising the establishment of the task force, he says it's "hard not to view the Government's move with cynicism".
“It was such a hypocritical thing for Humphreys to do because she was simultaneously pushing the section of the Heritage Bill allowing farmers to burn randomly in the uplands,” he says. “On one hand she was launching a wonderful curlew campaign and on the other, pushing legislation that puts birds on the brink of extinction.”
He adds: “We must stop the Heritage Bill to allow the task force to do its business.”
World Curlew Day
The Eurasian Curlew is one of eight curlew species worldwide. At least three of these are seen as endangered or near threatened, while the Eskimo curlew and the slender-billed curlew are considered likely extinct. To highlight the importance of these birds, manager of the Curlew Conservation Programme Dr Barry O'Donoghue established the idea of a World Curlew Day which took place on April 21st – the idea has quickly taken flight internationally, with events arranged as far away as Australia.
“It’s so important that it is community-led,” explains O’Donoghue. “The aim is to mainstream conservation issues and have them tie in with something that is well known in the locality. One of the key focuses from the day is that local people realise how important their area is on a national and international scale to this bird.”
Events in Ireland included talks, art competitions and even football tournaments such as the Curlew Cup in Stack's Mountains – all of which are featured on the World Curlew Day Facebook page.