Planning for the spring, I can’t help feeling a little downhearted. The return of the curlews should be a moment of tremendous joy, but the birds have recently brought with them a vague overtone of gloom. They just aren’t producing fledged young anymore – it has now been seven years since a youngster flew off our moss and headed down to the Solway. In that time, we’ve lost six breeding pairs and we’re now down to just five in the entire glen of more than 4,000 acres. I’ve written so exhaustively on this subject elsewhere on this blog that it’s not worth repeating here, but there is a restlessness to the remaining pairs which is jumbled and confused. The house is literally falling down around their ears. There will come a time quite soon when the curlews will leave their shattered nests in June and they will never return. I can feel that day coming, and it’s heartbreaking.
So what do I do about it?
Over the past eight years, I have spent hundreds (if not thousands) of pounds and hours managing rushy upland habitats so that they are more fruitful for breeding curlews. I am not the agricultural tenant and so the scope of my input is limited (and my access to financial support is zero), but I have cut rushes, fertilised and limed sour pasture and cleared back encroaching scrub woodland from key nesting sites. I devote up to three hours a day throughout the spring to checking traps and running snares, and I monitor breeding in a bid to understand precisely why the situation is so dire.
Predator control is a particularly poisoned chalice – checking traps and snares is some of the most boring and thankless work you could imagine. I’ve registered for this, qualified for that and been accredited on the other in order to carry out the crucial business of predator control, and yet I often lie awake at night and worry that my traps could fall into the wrong hands, or that some extraordinary accident could happen which would see me up in court. I start to wonder why anybody would put themselves through this vast effort for zero financial gain and, increasingly, no ecological progress.
If you didn’t understand, you could just say that I am wasting my time. I’ve had plenty of opportunities to think about this on countless long nights lying out for foxes, and on wet mornings stomping through fog to check crow traps while the rest of the world is warm in bed. I would counter it with two arguments:
– 1) Thanks to my efforts, my birds do better and get closer to success than any others in the glen. Cold comfort, but still comfort.
-2) If I can’t make time or set aside money for the most important cause I know, why should anyone else?
The work is made all the more demanding because I feel like I’m out on a limb. The actions I’m taking are absolutely appropriate – it’s almost all textbook stuff (with a few self-taught tweaks), but the shortcoming is that I’m working alone on too small a canvas. My 1,600 acres is swallowed up in ten times that area of spruce forest and overgrazed sheepwalk. Neighbours are generally supportive of my work, but none of them have the time and few the inclination required to get things off the ground. But then I find myself in a catch-22 situation – “how can I expect my neighbours to support curlews if I’m not delivering an example” versus “I can’t deliver a successful example without their support”.
In a scientific and political context, I also feel like I’m working against the grain – there is a general perception that what I’m doing is controversial or backwards. Frustratingly, we all agree that curlews require active conservation, but there is still a bewildering level of wooly-headedness when it comes to implementing crow and fox control – and here’s the rub, because without predator control, the curlew’s days are numbered.
There are a number of new curlew conservation initiatives which were kickstarted into life by recent BTO data which shed light on the extent to which the birds have declined nationally. We have mountains of science to demonstrate that ground-nesting birds struggle without predator control, and yet many people are determined to see around this truth, longing for a more savoury answer. Perhaps if we ring more chicks, or study their wintering habitats in Morecambe Bay, perhaps we’ll find some panacea which won’t concede political ground or endorse killing. The certain truth of the matter is that we already have many of the answers – we just can’t stomach them.
I will keep working for the birds this spring because giving up is not an option, but I am almost alone in this mentality. Rather than basking in the glory of success, I increasingly feel like I’m on a sinking ship.