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Worth recording that all three pairs of curlews on the in-bye ground have failed in their breeding attempts this year. When curlews lose their eggs, they frequently try for a second clutch within a week or two, but there is every sign that this first attempt (which should be the most successful) has been a total wipe-out.

I can keep a close eye on these birds as they hang around the old hayfields and the near end of the moss, and I was tremendously excited by the obvious tell-tale signs of young chicks hatching out towards the end of last week. In the event, the same pair had moved away by Tuesday and I watched the cock trying to tread the hen last night – hardly the actions of two devoted parents. I don’t know what became of the chicks, but in many ways, I consider this to be a major turn-up in itself. The percentage of eggs which actually hatch is tiny compared to the huge majority which are lost during incubation (95% by my notes), and I’m not aware of any live chicks on the hill since 2014 (and only one fledged since 2009). There is little to celebrate in this latest disaster, which is only noteworthy because failure was simply postponed.

One pair abandoned their nest almost as soon as the clutch was complete, and the other lasted about ten days before abandoning. I see that they are trying again in a deep wet pan criss-crossed by the tracks of badgers from two large setts nearby. I will eat my hat (and yours too) if those eggs ever hatch, let along result in fledged chicks. The other nest looks like it is going to be built within sight of a ravens’ nest on the forest edge, and the probability of success there seems equally dire. I haven’t kept in touch with how the other pairs are doing further back, but there was a patient, solemn “whoo-UP” from a displaying cock on the far hill three days ago. These are the sounds of early April, suggesting that failure has set the clock back for him as well.

Not only do the curlews have to compete with a limitless supply of foxes, badgers, crows, magpies, buzzards, kites, stoats and weasels, but this slow spring has hardly helped. There is almost no cover on the hill as a result of the dry weather, and any nest would hardly stand a chance, knitted together out of last year’s yellow rush litter and a thread or two of grey grass. We need deep, lustrous blades of timothy and cocksfoot; spiring jungles of soft rush and club rush to crowd up and hide the eggs, which glow like bulbs on the moss.

A line of eight young non-breeding curlews flew over the hill last night as I checked my crow traps. They chittered and squeaked, and they sounded like the shore. Not the bland yellow drift of child’s play sand, but the vast, semi-solid plains of the Solway. It was the sound of home for our breeding pairs, manacled to a strange and dangerous hill country by instincts and loyalty and a refusal to understand the concept of failure. It must have broken their hearts.

I spend three or four hours a day running crow traps and snares at this time of year. My work schedule groans beneath the weight of it, and I have to query the value of this effort when the sky hangs with buzzards and kites and the rushes are sifted clean by badgers every night. There is only so much I can do. The curlews are faced with the same predicament every year, and like an idiot, I work my guts out in the hope of a different outcome.

8 thoughts on “Wipe-Out

  1. Alan Jackson

    Hi Patrick, So sorry for your losses. I know how you feel re trapping, I feel the same here, having accounted for around 50 crows and a couple of dozen magpies but to what effect? However, I feel duty bound to continue! Alan.

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Ben palmer

    Good for you for persisting, Patrick. So sad and frustrating, but your firsthand documented accounts are an excellent record of what’s happening at the coalface.

    I see the same down here but you share your experiences in a far more measured and eloquent way than I could!

    Please keep up the good work.


  3. Shaun

    I too have played by the rules and done all I can legally both predator control and habitat wise. Like you I have seen little in the way of fledged curlew over the last 20 years, but I’ll keep trying to help a little longer.

  4. Rupert Stutchbury

    Your post and the comments above worry me, in that they could be used by the anti shooting lobby as ‘proof’ that vermin control with limitations doesn’t work and that habitat is everything. As with all these things it is partly true and mostly tommyrot. Pity it isn’t practical or viable to captive breed curlews and release them onto pre-prepared breeding sites!! I believe it is sort of succeeding extremely slowly with the English Corncrake population (that site in the fens).

    I have to admit that It is nice to see Red Kites circling Oxford, or Buzzards in Sussex but I would prefer to hear and see Curlews, lapwings and all our wonderful waders in the profusion they were when I was a boy in the 50’s and sixties. Even then my father used to tell me how scarce they were in comparison to when he was a boy. Ditto Nightingales, Grey Partridges, frogs, bees… everything really, come to think of it !

    1. A visit to Elmley NNR – a world away from Galloway – will see, within great bespoke habitat, how intensive the conservation wildlife management practices and infrastructure are in order to return the lapwing and redshank breeding successes.
      No badgers, a clever but long fence in a wet ditch for foxes and one man there for 10 weeks solely charged with legal predator control.
      If we could all afford that…
      best , Rob

  5. In NZ we are starting to see communities around wildlife sanctuaries working to create a halo effect. Rare birds breeding within a sanctuary are spilling over into suburban areas and the community works to keep them alive in our own gardens. Early days and I know our bird behaviours are different to what you’re dealing with but very interesting to follow.

  6. Keith Cowieson

    Off on my annual pilgrimage to the Central Highlands next week, where curlew numbers have appeared to be holding up well (over the last couple of years) on the moorland and areas of rough pasture where I tend to stravaig, see here – https://twitter.com/SongBirdSOS/status/475750023574331392 and here – https://twitter.com/SongBirdSOS/status/606582538136633344

    Deer forest, grouse moor, nature reserves and National Park land mainly, so the targeted predator control often a feature of the management regimes there undoubtedly helps…..as the GWCT’s Upland Predation Experiment conclusively demonstrated, see here – https://www.gwct.org.uk/media/249256/waders_on_the_fringev2.pdf.

    Will report back on this year’s observations later.

  7. Keep at it Patrick. Even if it’s just help the odd pipit! As Rob mentioned if you are ever this far south do come and see us at Elmley. Very much enjoy your blogs. Gareth

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