THERE is nothing like the call of the curlew. Perhaps it’s more evocative than any other sound of the uplands in spring. However it is heard less frequently these days and there are fears that soon it may not be heard at all. According to the RSPB the overall British population of the curlew (Numenius arquata) has declined by 50 per cent over the last 25 years. Declines in Wales and Northern Ireland were much worse, and it is quite possible that it will become extinct in wide areas. Its conservation status in the UK is red, the most endangered.
The curlew comes under the heading of wading birds, which live at the shore and feed on molluscs, crabs and worms in the sand or mud. It is the biggest wader in Europe, about the size of a mallard but more slender and longer legged. Males and females look alike with streaked brown plumage.
In the winter our native birds are joined by tens of thousands from Scandinavia.
In the spring the British birds move inland to breed, typically to rough, tussocky moorland of which there is a lot in Lancashire, changing their diet to earthworms, leatherjackets, beetles, spiders and caterpillars. They don’t like being near trees. The males make the wonderful call to attract mates and defend their territories. There are around 68,000 pairs of breeding curlews in the UK, which is around a quarter of the world population. But they are terribly vulnerable. In March, April or May the female lays three or four eggs in a nest on the ground known as a ‘scrape’. The parents incubate the eggs for about four weeks, before the young leave the nest and roam around with their parents for a further five to six weeks, until fledging. This is plenty of opportunity for predatory birds and mammals, particularly foxes, to take the eggs and chicks and for livestock to trample the nests. Even the RSPB, which is opposed to shooting, is forced to admit that management of moors for grouse could be good for curlews, saying: ‘In some upland areas, the control of foxes and crows by gamekeepers managing moorlands for red grouse shooting may be important in maintaining breeding curlew populations and preventing further declines.’
Here is a little film showing curlews and chicks.
When I was thinking about this piece I had the idea that the call of the curlew featured in the opening sequence of a lovely old BBC radio programme called The Countryside in [name of month].
I was wrong, but I thought I would play the music anyway:
PS: A bit more movement from the gunneras. This is the picture from March 19:
And this is yesterday.
With a good forecast for the next few days (including an almost unheard-of 18C for Sunday) I am expecting rapid progress.