I spend a good deal of time trying to highlight the decline of curlews. Many people are unaware that these birds now stand on the brink of extinction, and public awareness is one of a few ways we can initiate change. But there are some people who treat curlew enthusiasts like me with grave suspicion.
The science tells us that curlews depend upon a blend of habitat management and predator control, but that’s controversial. People don’t like the idea of killing wild animals and interfering in the “natural” world, so for all they’re pained by the loss of beloved birds, they’re stuck on the realities of action. Besides, predator control has become the domain of gamekeepers, and it’s easy to imagine that curlews have become a smokescreen to endorse shooting interests.
There’s no doubt that some shooting organisations have used waders to legitimize the sport. Waders breed well in places where predators are controlled, and so it’s inevitable that some of the highest densities of wading birds are found on shooting estates. I don’t seriously believe that shooting is using waders as a cynical front to endorse the continuation of the sport, but there are times when I read press releases and media coverage from pro-shooting organisations and find it provocatively smug and self-righteous. It’s not hard to see why people are suspicious.
Amidst this suspicion, a counter-argument has emerged. It’s being circulated by people who want to ban shooting, and they say that shooting estates release far too many pheasants and partridges each year. I agree that this is an emerging problem for shooting to consider, but the theory is that this glut of released game increases the number of carrion feeding predators like foxes and crows. And so it follows that released game birds are having a harmful knock-on effect on wading birds. From this perspective, it’s an easy leap to assume that gamekeepers are campaigning to kill their way out of a problem they caused.
We don’t really understand what damage is caused when we release millions of gamebirds every year. Some shoots work hard to deliver huge benefits to the local environment, but others seem to do very little. The growing number of pheasants and partridges being released into the countryside is a conundrum, but it’s hard to fathom what knock-on effects this might have for waders. If these releases really are increasing the number of foxes and crows then the effect is likely to be localized and the impact extremely complex. It’d be good to see some research on this, but I’m absolutely ready to believe that shooting may have played a part in boosting predators.
But it’s important to keep this in context. It’s one thing to understand the concern and quite another to extrapolate that theory into an accusation that shooting is driving the decline of the curlew. It’s bonkers, but the idea is being proactively circulated online by a number of key anti-shooting activists. If nothing else, this theory does a gross disservice to mountains of research into habitat change, human disturbance and changes in agriculture over the past half century. Here in Galloway, we’ve lost almost three quarters of the curlew’s traditional habitats to commercial forestry; elsewhere in Britain we’ve ripped up thousands of acres of ancient meadowland and hayfields where curlews used to breed. If shooting plays a part then it’s alongside some of these massive bodyblows which have brought curlews into wholesale meltdown. Curlews have declined alongside a rapidly changing countryside, and trying to pin the blame on any single cause makes no sense at all.
And this particular theory is doubly disappointing because it perpetuates a thread of conflict. It’s being pitched as a glib turnaround to make gamekeepers look bad, not by people who are concerned for the curlew but by those who think they’ve found a handy new lever in their campaign to attack shooting. It’s a symptom of how wading birds are rapidly becoming a petty battleground for issues which have been rumbling for decades, and it has very little to do with lapwings and curlews.
So I look again at the curlew’s future and realize that the greatest threat to the survival of this bird is a new brand of point-scoring tribalism. The reality is that people who love curlews come from all walks of life. If you want to see where real progress is happening, look for the people who’ve dropped their baggage and have begun to work together.