Will starlings one day fail to mimic curlew’s call? Never, I hope, but when it kicks off a conference (listen here), it’s a clarion call to roll up our sleeves and get to work.
Many miss the curlew. The State of Nature reports chart declines in much of our wildlife on which we have robust data, which itself covers only 5% of the 70,000 species found across the UK. Curlew are one of the most studied birds with heaps of research involving the wader over the years – 1993 Scotland (nesting), 1999 Northern Ireland (breeding), 2010 England (8 yr moorland), 2010 England and Wales (lowland), 2013 Upland land use, 2015 Wales (habitat), 2016 Scotland (25yr study), 2017 Wales (habitat), 2017 UK (breeding), through to 2017 UK (wader chick predators).
‘Perhaps’, I wrote in a blog for the RSPB, ‘as we’ve urbanised, it has become a poster bird for our lost connection with the countryside’ as we grapple with how to offset impacts of human activities from changing land uses (opinion for Heather Trust), farming practices and wildlife interactions. A trip to The Hague (once a marshy pond – now a high rise city) to listen to farmer group-driven schemes for waders, brought home the need to reconcile a guilt that grips us over our relationship with nature – listen here.
The Welsh Curlew conference was one of a series across the UK and Ireland, with Mary Colwell putting in ‘the legwork’ (as well as walking 500 miles) to galvanise researchers, farmers, gamekeepers, wardens, foresters, scientists, and communities to come together, not just for curlew, but for wildlife as a whole.
The day was stuffed full with latent collaborative intent. Even at the surprise of some: “Oh, we couldn’t have talked about that 5 years ago” a conservation NGO attendee told me.
RSPB’s David Smith told us of trialling targeted predator control and habitat manipulation (there’s a perfect ratio of rushes to open ground), while GWCT’s Andrew Hoodless reported on selective use of electric fencing, BTO’s Rachel Taylor updated us on tracking curlew (no point when they’re alarmed – listen here), sheep farmers talked of cultural livestock, and a professor of conservation science ‘disrupted’ the audience to open ourselves up to different views and debate in seeking the holy grail of non-adversarial conservation partnership press releases.
As Graham Appleton says, curlew can’t wait for a treatment plan. In Ireland they’re moving fast in engaging groups of farmers and ‘gun clubs‘ to look after curlews as well as other ground-nesting birds such as hen harriers; gamekeepers are surveying waders for the BTO in Yorkshire and Shropshire’s Curlew Country has been disseminating results of their initial project. Our wariness in fearing to be seen in cahoots with those carrying guns can defeat the very collaboration required to save wildlife. Perhaps, in the context of shifting public values, if we explain it better, it might enable us to justify the options available in this particular conservation matter.
There’s little point raising the plight of curlews without better informing wider non-conservation minded communities on the various methods to save it. A paper out March 2018 on *wildlife management in the UK includes the line “presence of professional control officers can enable volunteers to engage confidently with management projects without being required to kill”.
For me, this is a green light for various ‘curlew collaboratives’ to push on, especially when there’s no blood on the hands of those not wishing to engage with the grittier elements of conservation. We cannot sit on our hands any longer. Too much has been loved, listened or written, via poem or research, for us to abandon this bird and for it to become a merely a badge on a lapel.
That is because, underlying all this, it is more than a poster bird for our lost connections with bucolic countryside, but a massive wake up call to reconcile our differences to rediscover how to come together to work on braver conservation.