About the project

The Curlew Recovery Projected is a DEFRA funded, Natural England led project in partnership with British Trust for Ornithology, Pensthorpe Conservation Trust, Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, the Defence Infrastructure Organisation and the Royal Air Force.

Meet the team

Chrissie Kelley

Head of Species Management at Pensthorpe Conservation Trust.
Leads on all Avicultural requirements of the project from incubation of eggs through to release of fledged curlew.   

Sam Franks

Senior Research Ecologist at BTO.
Leads the post-release monitoring of headstarted Curlew and is responsible for leading projects focusing on the recovery of Curlew populations in England. She sits on the steering groups of England’s Curlew Recovery Partnership, the UK & Ireland Curlew Action Group, and the AEWA Eurasian Curlew International Working Group.

Michael Tomlin

Environmental Protection and Sustainability Advisor, RAF Headquarters Air Command. 
Michael and his colleagues, Ann Rosenhagen and Lizzy Kijewski, provide advice to a team of Environmental Protection Officers located throughout the UK and are involved with a wide range of sustainability and environmental protection initiatives.  

Richard Saunders

Ricard is Senior Ornithologist at Natural England and leads on several avian reintroductions.  He oversees the curlew project on behalf of Natural England and coordinates funding for the project.

Dominic Buscall

Dominic is project Manager at Wild Ken Hill, which provides one of the release sites. The job of the Conservation team at Wild Ken Hill in the project is to manage the juvenile Curlew immediately before release and to create a wider habitat suitable for Curlew.

Graham Irving

Graham is a senior advisor in the licensing team within Natural England. He liaises with the airbases and collects the curlew eggs in a portable incubator and delivers them to Pensthorpe. 


Seemingly a common sight on the mudflats and estuaries of the UK in winter, the Eurasian curlew (Numenius arquata) is Europe’s largest wading bird. It is a bird immortalised by writers and artists throughout history, inspired by its distinctive mournful cry that evokes emotion in all that hear it.
The genus name Numenius comes from two Greek words, ‘neos’ meaning new and ‘mene’ for moon and refers to the crescent shape of the curlew’s bill. The species name also refers to the shape of its bill, as arquata is the Latin word for the archery bow.

Many of the UK’s wintering birds taking advantage of our warmer climate originate from breeding populations in western and northern Europe. Around 58,000 pairs breed in the UK, representing roughly a quarter of the world breeding population of Eurasian curlew. Breeding curlews in the UK favour open, semi-natural grassland and heath, which have provided safe nesting sites and places for both adults and chicks to feed. However, they also can nest in more agriculturally intensive habitats, including intensive grassland cut for silage, and even arable habitats on occasion. It is in these more agriculturally intensive habitats where their breeding attempts can be impacted by agricultural operations.

Male curlew incubating eggs on a nest (credit Martin Hayward Smith)

Conservation concern

Around 50% of the UK’s breeding population has been lost over the last three decades, with lowland England experiencing some of the severest declines. Our breeding population is of global importance and the curlew was added to the UK Red List in 2015. It is one of the highest conservation priority species in the UK and now vital action is needed to reverse this decline.

Poor breeding success is the primary driver of national declines. Curlews are vulnerable to changes in land use, including the conversion of diverse, semi-natural hay meadows to grassland monoculture, and agricultural operations particularly earlier cutting for silage which directly coincides with the nesting season. The predation of nests and chicks also has a significant impact.

In the East of England, airfields, which are often surrounded by perimeter fences offering some protection from mammalian predators like foxes and badgers, have proven to provide the kind of open grassland habitat preferred by ground-nesting curlew. A small but significant number of pairs are found nesting on Ministry of Defence (MOD) airfields, however, due to risks to air safety, eggs have been destroyed under licence to prevent the risk of collision between birds and aircraft.

The project focus is to collect eggs from nests found on airfields, that would have otherwise been destroyed under licence, incubate them, and then rear chicks through to fledging in captivity – a process known as ‘headstarting’, which protects chicks during this critical period.