I recently spent a good deal of time writing about a curlew’s nest in a field of silage. I agonised over all the various angles of habitat management, and I ended up trying to imagine an agricultural landscape that is more varied and balanced to benefit all farmland wildlife. It ended up being a long article – longer than the limits I usually place on Working for Grouse articles, but I cut so much out of it that those 900 words were the bare bones of all I’ve thought and read on the subject. And so there is a certain bitter irony that all this desk-bound hand-wringing has been cast to the wind by the arrival of a fox.
I passed the nest yesterday and found it unoccupied. The sitting birds were visible from the road, so it had been possible to check on them without causing too much disturbance. When I returned two hours later from checking my traps, there was still no sign of an adult. With a sinking feeling, I quickly jumped the dyke and ran in to find that the nest had been emptied.
Of course careful habitat management is a crucial part of the curlew’s future. It’s absolutely right that we focus on bottlenecks in the curlew’s lifecycle and examine the ways in which waders are being pressed out of this very human landscape. But at the same time, predator control has to be a core theme of any viable way forward.
We can design and finance the most beautiful habitats for curlews, but they will lie empty unless we grasp the nettle on predators. After twenty years of black grouse conservation projects in the Southern Uplands, Galloway has some of the finest habitat for black grouse that it is possible to imagine. It has been hand-crafted by leading specialists, and the work has been funded by taxpayers, grants and subsidies from every level – but a refusal to engage with predator control means that most of it has come too late and it now lies empty. I occasionally find mouldy old signs which read “black grouse project funded by SNH/HLF/RSPB/FCS etc” lying in the midst of pristine habitat and feel a pang of disappointment that there aren’t any birds for miles in any direction.
As curlews decline, there is a tremendous outpouring of love and sorrow for the loss of such charismatic birds. This energy is extraordinarily positive, but it lacks a direct means of action. There are calls to raise money, sign petitions and lobby government officials – this is all constructive, progressive stuff, but it needs to be coherently marshalled into meaningful change. That’s a subject for another blog article, but for now this silage field nest can be ticked off as the fifth one I’ve seen emptied by predators so far this spring.