Our moors would be a very different place without curlews

Beware the cry of the seven whistlers.Miners, sailors and villagers of generations past warned that the sound of seven whistling birds flying late at night foretold shipwrecks, pit disasters, bad luck and death.

Wednesday, 10th July 2019, 10:45 am
Updated Wednesday, 31st July 2019, 1:42 pm
Curlew in flight in the Peak District

Walking over a Peak District moorland between late February and July might help you appreciate the curlew’s starring role in moorland folklore. The bird’s bubbling, whistling song and shrieking alarm calls can sound eerie, joyous, spine chilling or simply nostalgic.

“That’s taken me right back to my childhood,” said a tearful Irishman interviewed by author Mary Colwell, who said he’d forgotten the sounds of curlew around his boyhood farm.

“People like the curlew,” said Chris Lockyer, a National Trust ranger who monitors the birds around the High Peak. “They’re many things to many people. If you hear them on a sunny day they sound triumphant, but in the dense fog they’re really quite spooky.”

National Trust ranger Chris Lockyer checking for curlew in a wet field near Edale

We still have curlews on local moors, but we’re lucky.

In Ireland they’ve almost disappeared, in Wales they’ve dropped by 80 per cent and in England and Scotland breeding pairs have halved over twenty years.

The Eurasian Curlew is now on the ‘red’ list of threatened species. Mary Colwell, who visited the Peak District after walking across Ireland, Wales and England to highlight the bird’s decline in her ‘Curlew Moon’ book asked: “What is edging them closer to extinction?”

“Changes in land use, and climate change,” says Chris Lockyer. “For example, enriching the soil to maximise grass yield for hay or silage doesn’t generate the mix of habitat that the curlew favours. And moors drying out in a warming climate reduces the wet ground the adult birds need to feed.”

Curlew near Ladybower Reservoir

Conservation is complicated, say the people working on curlew recovery projects. Curlews prefer breeding on land more than 500 metres above sea level, and nest on ground where they can still see approaching predators. The chicks only have short bills so eat insects in puddles or grasses rather than probe for worms and larvae in bogs, like mum and dad with their long curved beaks.

Nesting curlews avoid woodland which might host foxes and crows, who eat curlew eggs and chicks. And after spending spring inland, curlews follow British holidaymakers to the coast in July and August, to catch worms in the mudflats where they’re joined by thousands of vacationing continental curlews, who like our food.

Chris says recent annual counts seem to show a fairly stable breeding population on the High Peak, with around 120 birds per season in monitored areas. The Eastern Moors Partnership have seen an increase in breeding pairs, while the Sheffield Bird Study Group say curlews are relatively abundant along the moorland fringe west of Sheffield.

“We’re very fortunate,” said Chris. “I don’t think you’d see a curlew within the city boundary anywhere else in the country.”

National Trust ranger Chris Lockyer checking the landscape near Edale

The National Trust’s High Peak Moors Vision plan aims to keep local moorland wet using small dams and reintroduced sphagnum moss, and is helping to bring the public, landowners and farmers together to reduce peat erosion and help wildlife like curlews and other moorland birds.

Curlews can also be helped by mowing hay fields late enough to allow chicks to fledge, and cutting out from the field centre so young curlews can escape tractor wheels and cutting blades.

But although they can live for up to 30 years, curlew parents are not keeping enough chicks alive for a stable population. Mary Colwell notes that their main predators, foxes and crows, are proliferating in the UK, and that more young curlews appear to survive where such predators are ‘controlled’.

“If curlews were still at healthy population levels it’s likely that the abundance of birds would outplay or balance with predation,” said National Trust ecologist Chris Wood. “Now the species has reached a tipping point, it’s likely that numbers are not currently able to match predation rates.”

Checking for larvae and worms in the mud near a curlew 'scrape'

Chris Lockyer says that educating the public about the plight of one of the UK’s favourite birds is crucial.

“I’d like to think the conservation work we’re doing is making a difference,” he said. “I hope so, because our moors would be a very different place without the sound of the curlew.”

National Trust ranger Chris Lockyer checking a 'scrape' created in a field near Edale to try and provide wet ground for feeding
Curlew in the Peak District