The past few weeks have been spent in close pursuit of a brood of curlew chicks. These tiny birds appeared as if from nowhere in a thoroughly unexpected spot below my house where intensive silage fields meet a ramshackle sliver of moss and boggy ground. The farmer has been forced to downsize his operations this year as a result of illness, so this whole area is not being grazed at all until the autumn. Undisturbed and grazed only lightly in previous years, it simply could not be in better condition as a diverse meadow. The variety of plant species competing in the moss is enough to make Tiree or North Uist envious. There are plantains, orchids, buttercups and cinquefoils, stirred in with lolling bog cotton, docks and tongues of jolly redshank. Day by day the meadowsweet climbs out of the wet ground, and the myrtle reeks at dusk and dawn.
Quite apart from the mix of plant species, the vegetation is also structurally perfect for small birds, being patchy enough to allow easy access for little feet and yet dense enough to become a fortress in times of need. I’ve looked at this ground many times and hungrily hoped to find a greyhen in there with a trail of chicks behind her, as I can hardly imagine a better piece of so-called “brood rearing habitat” in Galloway. I was totally delighted by the discovery of four curlew chicks in this little oasis almost a fortnight ago, and was fascinated by what would become of them if only the weather would hold.
And of course, the weather did hold. We’ve had the warmest, loveliest spring I can ever remember. I’ve worn shorts almost every day for a month, and the chicks have swelled in the sunshine. During all the countless hours I’ve watched them, I’ve never seen them brooded by the adults during daylight hours; they haven’t needed any help whatsoever, and when they fancy a rest, they simply plop down into the grass and go to sleep.
But (and it’s a monstrous “but”), the nearest gamekeeper is probably seven miles away. Stalkers shoot a few foxes here and there, but nobody traps crows within a four mile radius. As a result, foxes, crows and magpies are all a common sight, not to mention the ubiquitous background noise of buzzards, badgers and a nest of sparrowhawks within 200 yards of where I first found the chicks.
At first, this seemed to refute the widely publicised belief that nothing prospers without predator control. I was staggered by the curlew’s ability to bring off a clutch of four eggs under such hostile conditions, and having been brought up on the doctrine that gamekeepers are a requisite part of wader conservation, I dared to hope that habitat and favourable weather would pull off a miracle.
Sure enough, the chicks grew like weeds. I photographed them every day and filled two notebooks with observations on their various strengths and vulnerabilities, their cohesion (or lack of it) and their complex communications with mission control (their parents). The mechanism by which adults detected and dispelled intruders was fascinating, and I began to have hopes that these chicks were not just a flash in the pan like so many that had gone before them in Galloway.
It was a sublime and totally unexpected window into the world of a bird that has become something of an enigma in my home county, and my work foundered as I watched over the chicks in a state of electrified delight from 3:45 in the morning to 10 o’clock at night.
But on Friday last week, there were suddenly only two chicks. On Sunday, there was one. There is still a single chick on the moss – I was watching it this morning, impressed at its growth and by the advent of its first primary feathers, but I can’t help wringing my hands at its chances of fledging after the demise of its peers.
I would love to be able to pinpoint a specific culprit for the disappearance of the three chicks. In fact, I would love to be able to prove that a predator was responsible, as without this evidence of the obvious, some will dismiss the whole observation as anecdotal hokum. Buzzards have certainly been a sticking point for the adults and there was a farm cat hunting up the road nearby the night before the first two chicks went missing. I don’t know what happened and the story is still not complete, but it’s a fair enough moment to set down an early conclusion at this stage.
We’ve had exceptional rearing weather this spring – it has been a once-in-a-decade season, and all kinds of birds have produced bumper crops of chicks. These curlews have enjoyed the double bonus of the farmer’s partial withdrawal from these acres, leaving the habitat to grow into something really special. What a coincidence; you could call it a “once-in-a-curlew’s-thirty-year-lifetime” opportunity.
With luck so heavily balanced in their favour, it is tempting to think that if this pair cannot fledge youngsters this year, they will never do it.
It has been a revelation to see what a tremendous difference A1 habitat and sunshine can make to a species that so rarely gets out of the starting blocks when it comes to breeding. But all that is for nothing without predator control.
Like all over-simplified “debates”, discussions around predation are easily polarised and made ridiculous. Some argue that predator control is unnecessary where the habitat is correct. Some argue that the cycles of weather result in natural booms and busts in wader productivity. I’m now more convinced than ever by the value of habitat and weather, but it’s increasingly clear that neither matter without predator control. When all three align, there is no reason why those four youngsters could not have fledged this year – it would have been exceptional, but this is an exceptional year. I don’t expect every wader to convert 100% of its eggs into fledged youngsters every year, but if the summer passes and these two devoted parents head back to the Solway on their own, it will be a bitter, bitter disappointment and a damning condemnation of our collective approach to conservation.