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Latecomers

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Having been off the hill for the weekend on account of a trip to Budapest, I headed back up to reset the traps and have a look around this afternoon in the sunshine. Despite only having been away for a matter of days, the ground has sprung to life in my absence, and the cottongrass is finally turning fluffy after a fortnight of relative inactivity. There are still few flowers to speak of on the hill aside from the massive sprays of lady’s smock, but the grass seems to have grown an inch over the warm, mild weekend.

I was keen to see how the curlews were faring, and a week after finding a nest, I had to pass by the same spot again on my way off the hill. I have been trying to avoid this area, but necessity dictated that I came within fifty yards. I was pleased to see the curlew get off the nest in the warm sunshine, and I took her presence as an indication that the little clutch was still intact. On closer inspection, I was rather surprised to find that the nest now contains four eggs, and the pair has only started sitting in the past few days.

By way of comparison, a note from keeper pals in Perthshire informs me that very small curlew chicks were seen on the hill last week. This is pretty classic timing for a bird that is traditionally supposed to go down on eggs at the end of April, and while I enjoy the speculation that my pair might have held off their first clutch until better weather came, the fact that they are a month late implies that they have tried over the past few weeks and failed. It is unusual that their second clutch should have four eggs, but I have seen it before.

Whatever the explanation for the lateness of this hen going down (and I have so many theories), this clutch will have been completed shortly before last weekend and (all being well) will probably hatch during the third week in June. Provided they live, the chicks won’t be fully fledged until the end of July, but while there is no reason why they shouldn’t make it down to the Solway, past experience suggests that late chicks tend not to make it. I don’t quite understand why, but the very young birds I find in July tend to be poor doers and they just fade away. Depending on the weather, there is often a rise of ticks around that time, and in a hot summer, insect life dries up awfully quickly later on. Who knows – it will be different on every piece of ground, and I haven’t got to the bottom if it yet. That said, there have been one or two young birds which got off in August over the past six years, implying that late clutches are worth trying.

My eye was caught by the fact that curlews have been flagged up by the RSPB as a species of particular conservation concern in 2015. RSPB studies in recent months have identified the value of gamekeepers and predator control in curlew conservation, and it seems an excellent opportunity for the two to work together with a common purpose. I look forward to seeing how this gets on, but a cynical part of me already expects to see any collaborative progress hijacked by press releases like “RSPB (and partners) launch curlew project” or “RSPB gets gamekeepers involved in curlew conservation”.

I feel like I’ve rather grown out of bashing the RSPB’s publicity machine, and I’m often equally sick of the fumbling, half-cocked way that shooting presents itself to the world. Curlew conservation is so important that it shouldn’t matter who gets the credit – but no matter who does the work in British conservation, you can usually be sure where the spotlight will shine.

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