At the Cutting Edge

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Life in the crop

It was interesting to find a curlew’s nest in the rich green depths of a silage field last  weekend. I know this ground quite well, and it lies in the heart of some extremely productive dairy ground in the glen below the Chayne.

This nest has been made in the heart of an intensive agricultural crop, and some crucial problems now lie on the horizon. There are several stages to silage production, and each one risks disturbing birds and damaging eggs. I shared a photograph of the eggs on social media and implied that the future looked bleak for this clutch – the response was loud and immediate – a torrent of feedback; “Tell the farmer!”, “Fence off the nest!”, “Ask the farmer to cut around the eggs!” – curlews mean a great deal to many people, and the precarious nature of the situation drew an emotional and big-hearted response.

As a point of interest, I met the farmer and gently mentioned the curlews, to which he replied that he knew all about them. It occurred to me that if I had gone straight to the point and presumed to “tell him”, he could easily have been prickly – I certainly would be in his shoes. I imagined how it might have gone if I had been a stranger bowling up to his house to tell him what was happening on his ground. I doubted whether the outcome would have been all that productive.

Hundreds of curlew eggs and chicks must be destroyed by silage cutters every year, but damage caused by agricultural machinery is just one of several mechanisms which drive decline in this kind of habitat. Even if they weren’t disturbed, smashed or munched up by forage harvesters, these eggs still face a bleak future.

Like almost every other intensive monoculture, silage is a profoundly flawed environment for rearing young birds. The nutrient-rich soil in silage fields is superb for wintering flocks of adult curlews which feed on grubs and worms beneath the surface, but chicks don’t probe the ground – they pick spiders and beasties off leaves and blades of grass. These insects are scarce in a uniform sward of ryegrass, and the thickness of the growth is too dense for tiny birds to navigate. Even a brief shower can turn the grass into a horrible soaking jungle for a tiny chick – without access to some other cover, the crop soon becomes a death trap.

The problems of silage are compounded by the lack of variety in this landscape – somehow, silage production has been allowed to spread into uniform monocultures which range for thousands of acres in Galloway. Where headlands and set-asides run like a life support mechanism through the countryside in many arable landscapes further North and South, our silage plains are relentless. There are no clear financial incentives to make set-asides a viable part of these farm businesses, and this is a shocking oversight in conservation terms.

But it’s also worth remembering that uncut silage fields can offer tremendous nesting cover during the incubation process. Silage grows thick and dense, concealing eggs and sitting hens so that they are as safe as houses. Fastidious foxes would rather not hunt through dense thickets of grass on the offchance of the occasional meal (particularly when the grass is wet), and they often prefer to sift through the field margins. Of course aerial egg thieves pose a threat, but otherwise the incubation period is much more secure than on the hill, where later growth leaves eggs painfully exposed. Ironically, the security of nesting cover in silage fields produces chicks which then have nothing to eat, while eggs on the hill never last long enough to hatch and enjoy the phenomenal bounty of insect food – two extremes which impact on different ends of the same process.

While discussing the nest, the farmer and I considered the relative merits of marking its location, but agreed that the problems facing this breeding pair are far more profound than simply driving around the eggs. Let’s imagine for example that it’s May 21st, the eggs still haven’t hatched and the contractors arrive to take a cut of silage. If they notice the nest marker (and in my experience, they often don’t) and leave a streak of grass standing around the nest, the eggs are deprived on their deep, dark security and the clutch is as good as dead. Foxes are drawn to freshly cut silage fields like a magnet, and a small patch of uncut grass is a tantalising, floodlit question mark to a curious fox. If the eggs last long enough to hatch after the grass is cut, clumsy, noisy day-old chicks which attempt to travel long distances across freshly shorn fields are also as good as dead.

So let’s imagine that it’s May the 21st, the contractors arrive and the eggs have hatched. The chicks will be wandering loose through the crop when the foragers starts to whirr, and there is no way of marking a moving target. There’s a good reason why red kites and buzzards follow the forage harvesters, since for every acre of cut grass, there must be a pint of minced leveret or chick.

Either way, the situation is dire. The obvious solution is to design and support a network of set asides and brood rearing habitats which weave through the landscape on a large scale, but even with the best will in the world, farmers here have their foot on the throttle. Change feels very far away, and despite the best intentions of many well-wishers, the situation requires extremely careful handling.

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2 thoughts on “At the Cutting Edge

  1. As someone who has on more than one occasion hatched and reared strange broods under bantams or from the incubator, all with success, like a clutch of Moorhen eggs swept away in a flash flood, Gadwall eggs cut out of a silage crop (only discovered what they were after they hatched!), ditto grey partridges and of course pheasants. Might you not be tempted to do this with this clutch and hope the parents nest again later. It shouldn’t be impossible to raise the curlew chicks any more than it was the Gadwall, Greys or Moorhen! A nice little project for you too.

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