The Inevitable

Another failed nest - remains of curlew eggs in the grass.
Another failed nest – remains of curlew eggs in the grass.

After a heavily wader-oriented week in the Outer Hebrides, I went around my own hill this afternoon to find that the curlew nest I’ve been keeping a close eye on has been raided and now lies empty. It looks like the eggs were taken around a week ago, only a week into their incubation; a blade of grass has grown up through the thin pad of dead vegetation which formed the base of the nest. There is a streak of eggshell near the nest, and this helps to fill out my understanding of how curlews fare on the Chayne. While devastating, this result is no real surprise when viewed alongside the other material I’ve amassed on curlews over the past six years, in which twenty four breeding pairs have fledged one youngster and less than 10% of clutches I’ve found have even survived long enough to hatch. 80% of these eggs have been eaten by corvids (mainly crows, but some to ravens) and the rest to foxes, badgers and one trampling.

I can say with some certainty that egg theft is by far the greatest obstacle to curlew productivity on the hill – the fact that the eggs rarely hatch makes chick mortality rather academic. Part of this nesting problem is related to sub-standard breeding habitat which does not provide sufficient cover for nesting birds, although in a late spring like this, nothing has any cover to hide in. More fundamentally, the RSPB’s studies have proved beyond any doubt that curlew productivity is lower in the vicinity of commercial forestry, and curlew-hungry predators thrive in the thick spruce woodlands all around the Chayne.

The theme of the recent Newtonrigg Uplands Conference was the idea of multi-functionality – combining upland land uses so that they complement one another. There are ways of working the hills so that we get clean water, long term Carbon storage, quality meat and healthy agriculture, sport and grouse production and the preservation of biodiversity. With careful management, you can have all of these outcomes and more.

Although it wasn’t mentioned in much detail, several speakers alluded to the fact that forestry is one of the hardest things to integrate in the hills, probably because it is not an upland land use; it’s a forestry land use. The literature distributed by the Scottish Woodland Expansion Advisory Group speaks of forestry “competing with other land uses” rather than “complementing” them, and the recent WEAG Rationale Document felt that Scotland could afford to lose a further 420,000 Ha of unimproved grassland and heather moorland to planting – potential curlew habitat ready for the plough.

In his closing remarks after an entertaining talk at the conference, Andrew Miller from Northumberland National Park explained that it may not always be possible to tick every box on every piece of ground. Sometimes, compromise won’t work, he said – we can’t always expect to get everything and we may have to make sacrifices. Unsurprisingly, he used forestry as an example – We may find that we need to set aside areas to produce timber and areas to conserve waders and accept that the two just don’t mix.

Perhaps Dumfries and Galloway has already become one of these places. You can have trees, farm the grants a bit, and put up wind turbines, but don’t expect much in the way of integrated conservation value. It was quite a heart-break moment to see this “in action” on the hill this afternoon, and I almost have to come to terms with the possibility that I have been fighting a doomed battle for six years.

And all the while, the foresters continue to rattle their sabres and champ at the bit to plant more trees. Several high-profile forestry enthusiasts circulate anti-grouse-shooting literature, and they peer greedily over the marches at what they see to be “empty, useless open ground” on sheep farms and grouse country. My grandchildren will still be paying to restore the damage the foresters caused to upland biodiversity and peatland when they were given a free reign to plant the hills half a century ago, and there is a bitter single-mindedness in the drive to keep uprooting what little moorland we have left in the name of “public interest”.


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