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
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)
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.