Wet-nesting Lapwings

I’ve been surprised by the number of lapwings I’ve found this spring, and it’s been revealing to spend more time around these birds. Unlike curlews, it seems like lapwings are less faithful to a point of origin. In some years, they won’t return at all to formerly useful sites – at other times, they’ll appear as if from nowhere to breed in locations that please them after an absence of many years. They work as a nice counterpoint to the curlew’s monotonous fidelity, and I like the idea of lapwings drifting in the sky like spat in a sea current.

I believe that lapwings are suffering an even more disastrous fate than curlews in Galloway, but this sense of seasonal rootlessness gives me a feeling that their decline is masked by the movement of incomers and outgoers. Masked or flagrant, the reality is that many birds will already have failed by now in the last week of April, and while further attempts might be made later in the spring, the window of success is getting narrow.

One strange exception to this rule is on a farm near Balmaclellan where lapwings seem to breed with surprising success. There are no gamekeepers or predator control on this property, and it’s surrounded on all sides by vast areas of mature conifer plantations. This is badger country par excellence, and it seems like everything is tipped against these birds succeeding. However what they have in their favour is a handful of very small, rather fragmented pieces of top-notch breeding habitat; some in the mossy margins of a loch and another in the blocked up remains of an old millpond. Both are extremely wet places; when I went to set a trail camera at the millpond nest this spring, it was most definitely a job for my wellington boots. The nest was built on a little tussock of moss surrounded by pools of standing water, and when you’re used to seeing lapwings nesting in dry fields, it made for quite an odd spectacle. However, these locations are some of the most consistently successful lapwings nest-sites I know.

It’s partly down to the wetness. I doubt that many ground predators want to wade to their bellies in sludge for the eggs, and the boggy areas are big enough that the scent of a nest probably doesn’t carry to dry land to inspire an attempt in the first place. The greatest threat is probably a sudden fall of rain which would flood these eggs quite quickly, but a succession of dry springs has worked in their favour. When the chicks hatch, they walk into a superbly cryptic habitat full of insects – success is not guaranteed even then, but it’s wildly more likely than many more traditional dry habitats.

It makes sense that habitat quality influences breeding productivity, and if predation pressure increases as habitat quality declines, that’s a clear mechanism to drive failure. So it’s not so hard to assume that lapwings which nest in less-than-perfect places require a proportionate degree of human protection from predators. Conversely, when they find an ideal location to nest, they can manage their own affairs without additional support. That’s an interesting dynamic, but I wouldn’t infer from this that we should abandon the birds which attempt to breed in drier, more vulnerable locations. Predator control and habitat management work together as two parts of the same deal, and the lesson I take from this farm is some kind of meeting in the middle; we can’t all have lovely sludgy millponds, and lapwings cannot survive on a few isolated scraps of leftover mud. It’s on us to make less-good-places better and sustain a clearer balance which accommodates all the challenges of a busy, and ever-more demanding countryside.

The Search – part five

We’re now into the curlew’s failure phase. The day before I went away, two pairs were displaying towards the village. Better still, I saw them both mating and one pair actively shaping a nest in the rushes. It seemed like the arrival of eggs was imminent, but a week later these pairs have gone. Nesting curlews can be hard to find, but I’ve spent hours watching for them and it’s clear those nesting attempts have been abandoned. So much of what I see is based on inference, but from all the evidence it seems likely that they laid and lost their eggs at some stage over the last ten days. I can’t help feeling guilty for having gone away – in practical terms, I could have done more to help these birds, and as always I blame myself for leaving work undone.

Discussing this disappointment with a group set up by Working for Waders, it was interesting to learn again that wader nests can be strangely ephemeral things in the modern countryside. As part of a nest recording scheme, participants are encouraged to record some simple data about nests whenever they’re found; the number of eggs or the date of discovery. But after chewing this over, it seemed there’s a fair argument to include “time of discovery” too; a sad reaction to the fact that many nesting attempts last only a matter of hours.

From what I’ve seen in the past, these immediate or very speedy losses are down to corvid theft. By the time that curlews lay their eggs, crows are raising chicks of their own. There have been studies to show that territorial breeding crows are far more aggressive and front footed than juveniles or non-territorial birds, and they seem to steal the eggs of other birds with astonishing efficiency. Not only will they take these eggs to eat, but I believe there’s a degree of malice in there too; they simply don’t want other birds near them. A curlew’s egg will be spotted as soon as it’s laid, and it might be stolen before the day’s end.

I’m not completely sure what happens when the first curlew’s egg is laid and is stolen immediately thereafter. When you take eggs from a chicken, you always leave one in the nest so the bird knows to keep laying there; take all the eggs and the chicken will start laying elsewhere. There have been instances where a single egg has been stolen from a nest of three or four, and this is reckoned to have little effect on the parent birds’ desire to go on. But a complete clean-out must be very confusing and it seems unlikely that a curlew will lay a second egg in the same place when the first has been stolen. But even if they decide to move and start again, unfortunately the birds are so faithful to breed in specific locations, the chances are they won’t go far and the next nest will suffer the same fate until the birds are spent.

I blame crows for these early losses, partly because that’s what I’ve seen but also because in the years when I was much better placed to control corvids, the curlews on my patch were far more likely to complete the incubation period. Of course a fox will be looking for nests, but he does not have the same advantages as a crow. And a badger will find a nest only when he stumbles upon it. No, I think it’s crows; carrion crows with lesser but not insignificant help from rooks and jackdaws. Ravens could be worst of all, but the damage they do is patchy and while they’re a disaster for some places, I don’t see much of that here. Besides, the caveat to the importance of crow control is that while nests are potentially more likely to hatch in the absence of crows, I think chicks are more vulnerable to a different set of predators once they’ve hatched. In this case, it’s out of the frying pan, into the fire – failure is not prevented but postponed.

All this has a bearing on the curlew survey as birds recoil from the confusion of their initial failure. I’ve been seeing birds turning up in unexpected places, and I feel like this is their attempt to regroup before trying again. Most of these birds will go back to their original nest sites in a few days, but it adds a layer of complexity to counting.

Everything here relates to lowland birds breeding in silage fields and wet areas on farms around my house – but the biggest hammer-blow has fallen in the hills, where I reckoned to find most of the birds in the area. At first I reasoned these moorland curlews were slow to return because it’s been so cold, and that’s probably true in part. But there’s no explanation for why they’re still not here as we approach the start of May. It can only be that after so many failed attempts, they’re just not coming.

Up on my grandfather’s place, “The Chayne”, once famous for its birds, I’m now facing a year without any curlews at all. It’s likely this will be the first time in many centuries that our hill will go into spring without the sound of curlews.

Ryeland

In the autumn when the going was better than it is now, I sent my sheep across the river to get them in lamb. In an uncharacteristic moment of madness, my neighbour had bought a fancy Ryeland tup which looked like a teddy bear, and he was already regretting the decision. He thought it was daft and I stoked that flame by undermining him. For a game, I badgered him to let that tup have a go at my ewes, hoping that I’d get some funny-looking lambs in the spring. He rolled his eyes and conceded, but the tup’s first night of work proved to be his last and they found it dead in a corner of the field the next day. It made for a joke if nothing better, and my neighbour cursed the error of his ways. He’d never buy anything so foolish as a Ryeland tup again. My ewes went in with their normal texel tup on the marsh fields and that was that.

It happened that my neighbour took ill and died soon after that. It was a shock to everyone, and we all miss him sorely in the glen. My ewes came home and spent the winter fattening on hay I cut with that man, and I thought of him often and the time we might have spent teasing one another about things we each thought the other had done wrong. Already in 2022 I’ve often felt the lack of him on chores we would’ve done together in a spring I cannot take for granted. When I came to clean my turnip seeder, I choked to find new bolts he used to replace the old ones when he borrowed it last year. 

And I wish there was some way to tell him that one of my ewes had twin lambs to that Ryeland tup on Friday last week, proving that the animal’s one night of work had not been in vain. My neighbour would’ve cracked himself laughing at that. And he’d spit fire at God’s irony that the only person to get any pleasure from that Ryeland tup was the damn boy from across the river, and By Christ there would have been some mileage in that for me. I would’ve offered to sell him back his own lambs, and he’d have said that I was speaking too soon, and it doesn’t matter how good the seed is, only rubbish grows on my ground.

Then last night on the edge of darkness and the red rim of an afterglow in the north, I stood and watched my little black lambs playing away from their mother for the first time. There’s even something eldritch about those funny-headed mongrels in broad daylight, but this scene was total silence and dusk; the smell of new grass and lanolin on dry soil as the pair of them dashed like hares along the knowes together, not in the sense that hares are fast but more in that bow-backed, joggy way they’ll move from the form to feed. Then they ran down to leap on another sheep that lay in a litter of molehills. Capering brightly enough to make me smile, they tried to climb onto her back and finally drove her to stand and shake them off; and all of this in light too-dark-to-tell so that creatures moved in shapes you could only perceive from the corner of your eye in the cool, condensing gloom.

I must have watched those lambs for half an hour, and I wouldn’t be so far distant if such a thing were to be seen when I have gone myself and somebody thought of me. 

The Search – part four

I met a surprising degree of resistance when I came to launch a curlew survey earlier in the month. It’s risky to put your head above the parapet at the best of times, but curlew conservation has become steadily stickier over the last few years. Some people regard the issue as a battleground by proxy to the issue of shooting for sport, and because curlews are so dearly regarded by shooting folk, some anti-shooting campaigners now consider it their duty to dislike the birds. It’s mucky and it doesn’t make much sense.

In the aftermath of the survey’s launch in Galloway, I was surprised that many curlew devotees were actively hostile to the idea of counting birds. In person and on social media, they complained that there is no time to waste on a survey, and that the only real route to safety is through rapid action. I received a few long messages about the significance of commercial grassland management as a driver of curlew decline, and there was a constant stream of criticism that we will not see progress for these birds until we can address the issue of predation.

On the other side of the coin, several people complained that curlews are declining because the shooting community releases so many pheasants each year, and these birds generate such a vast amount of carrion that the local population of predators is buoyed and spills over to kill a host of groundnesting birds. They reasoned that curlews are doomed if we cannot stop driven pheasant shooting, and I’ve heard all these arguments both for and against action before. There’s probably some truth in all of them, but perhaps you’ll start to see why I was confused by these divergent reactions. I had asked for help to count the birds. Instead, people gathered round to tell me why there are so few.

The word survey was a particular sticking point. Surveys are the domain of scientists, ecologists and people who have developed a reputation for talking. That’s unfair, but by embarking on a “survey”, I was being billed as a fiddler; yet another time-waster out to prove and reprove the same old obvious facts. There’s a well-established “off the shelf” model of conservation based around surveys which allows scientists to count a species into extinction. I’m afraid it’s been used on the black grouse we have here in Galloway; as each year swings around, funding is allocated to count the birds and produce a number which is always smaller than the number we had the year before. This generates a sense of proactivity, but the work has become completely detached from practical outputs. It’s just counting; birdwatching disguised as conservation.

So when I came to say I was counting curlews, it looked to some like I had gone over to this school of thought. It’s a reasonable criticism, particularly since I’ve often complained about the dangers of producing a number but failing the species.

In part two of these updates, I bemoaned the fact that farmers have taken curlews for granted, but the same applies to ornithologists and conservationists too. The local RSPB branch does not keep any record of breeding curlews in the area, and the SOC’s Bird Report 2019 has no records of breeding curlews anywhere in the entirety of Dumfries and Galloway. This latter document is an entertaining mix of stringent objectivity and biases which smell like thinly processed anecdotes, but its lack of breeding curlew records adds to a general sense that nobody is watching as this disaster unfolds. It’s not to say that curlews did not breed that year – they simply were not seen or counted, and there’s more irony in that fact that as some farmers damn me for walking the walk of a birdwatcher, the birdwatchers aren’t doing work they’d usually consider their own.

The curlew survey I’m working on is a useful tool to raise the alarm, but it’s also rooted in a growing understanding of how conservation is supported in this country. If you want to be taken seriously, you need to start with a survey – so in a way I’m simply “playing the game” and using this work as a tool to access the funding we’ll need to break out of a downward spiral. Perhaps I’m being cynical in this, but I can’t deny that running a survey has been really useful in driving me to meet new people, cover new ground and grasp a sense of what’s wrong.

I thought I knew a fair amount about waders in Galloway, but the last few weeks have blown the lid off that. My eyes are far more open now, but for all that I’ll have done lots of work on this by the time the project ends on May 15th, I cannot allow myself to believe that I’ve done anything more than prepare to take an initial step.

I agree that curlews cannot wait to be saved, and the frighteningly small number of birds I’ve found so far would seem to suggest that they’re already on the brink of collapse. At times like these, surveys can feel like obfuscation, so when I’m challenged to prove that I’m not just “more of the same” now, I force myself to go back through a useful story of why I’m here and where I’m going.

Southern Uplands

I’m not sure what “Southern Uplands” are, or whether those words are a useful way to describe something that shouldn’t bear a single name. I know my home and I know Dumfriesshire less well. My knowledge of the Borders diminishes with distance so that Hawick’s familiar and Kelso’s another world, but there’s far more to this thrownaway skelp of Scotland than meets the eye. And it’s only in these last few years spent working in Lanarkshire and sometimes in the Moorfoots that I’ve started to get a sense of how these many and varied parts lock together in a sense that’s far more interesting than the lazy, nothing-to-see-here articulation of Southern Uplands.

Can you believe that I was thirty before I knew the name of Tinto? I’d never been to Stobo or Spango until recently, and Horseupcleugh was just a funny word until December. But now I’ve started filling in the blanks, and standing for the first time on the shoulder of Gathersnow Hill at Coulter, I found yet another undiscovered enormity of countryside I never knew existed. For a start I was amazed by how much of this land is heather hill and free of trees. From the high ground in Galloway, I’m used to the sight of conifer blocks like a chequerboard to the far horizon, but many of these Border-Lanarkshire hills are bare or black with heather as they would have been when my grandfather farmed nearby in the 1930s. It was a reminder that the scale of Galloway’s problems are unique to herself, and I should be more cautious when I attempt to pronounce on behalf of southern hills when really I mean my own.

But I also learned how closely all these famous catchments lie in a swirl like a red and white peppermint together in the sun. In the late afternoon to the tune of skylarks, I could see the Clyde rise and turn away towards the city; the Tweed come toiling out from a cleft in the hills; a flash of the Forth and south to the Annan, the Nith and the Esk all working down in parallel bands towards the Solway. From a height you can see how it all might lie together, clear in a sense that’s superhuman.

My perspective was altered when I read Wendell Berry’s vision of water reversed upon itself so that it does not fall from the land but rises from the sea in a mess of grasping arteries like a silver net. So I felt that if I could only lift up a handful of sodden moss at my feet at the summit of Gathersnow Hill, the whole and interlocking fabric of water in multiple catchments would be taughtened like a rug and all those threads would twitch themselves as far as the distant coast.

I’ve set myself too big a task to know this single part of Scotland, but I’ve already gone too far to give up. And now I’m more cautious than ever about folk who claim to speak on behalf of more than they’ve seen with their own eyes.

Fen

The sun sank stifling to the reeds in a margin of dusk. All the warming day I’d held my peace on the tarmac roads until I fell at last to stop on the Levels with the hawthorns already in flower to show how far from home I’d come. I was down in the Outrageous South, in sight of Glastonbury Tor, struck and sickened with premature summer in the last week of April. I rolled from the car and placed myself in the verge, facing the blank gable-ends of house-tall reeds and the unrelenting rot of roots in tepid, slimy water.


Then beneath the skim of low-flying ducks and the early seeds of willow down, a sound came into me with a single roiling swell. This was what I’d come to hear, and I’m glad I saved this sound for now and didn’t rush to hear it a decade ago. I’m only just well grown enough to bear it in the rich and mingled associations of the fen; sediment swirls around the baby in the bulrushes; King Alfred forced to hide in the marshes and the frog-skinned Anglians wading half-seen and steamily on stilts. It’s the backdrop sound to a thousand old stories, and newer too from Frodo in the Mere of Dead Faces to Howland Reed and the deal of the Crannogmen.

They’re not my stories, but fens like these stir lasting stains in the imagination. Whatever we used to call fens in Galloway have gone now, but you can still find them marked on old maps before the drainage men came. And it doesn’t matter that I cannot place my finger on a specific memory that brings that old world close to mind, because in the warm insipid water and the gathering gloom, there was something universal in these amniotic Levels; a sound of sleep and prebirth; miasmic recollections of a time before you ever loved or a knew a thing, fattening in your pod like an iris seed. There’s no reason to love this place with all its life reduced to the soup of its composite parts, and it’s not love I feel but something more inevitable.

I thought of that essay called Mossbawn by Seamus Heaney (1980), in which he remembered the sound of the waterpump in the farmyard of his childhood home. He throws a shape around that sound, naming it to evoke the liquid swell of water rising in a pipe. He called it omphalos; the navel; root of our word umbilicus. That pump is his beginning; a start that harked for him just as this sound drew me back to memories I never had, and hearing this at thirty six I understand why it is that when you run a bath, you have to stir the waters as they’re drawn; otherwise they’ll lie in layers and shock you.

You can try and call it birdsong and the simple booming of a bittern in the marshes, but I cannot vouch for that sound which slid like mucus in the darkening reeds with all its weight on the opening syllable; OOM phalos, OOM phalos, OOM phalos, and the tailing phonemes trailing to fricative slittery sibilance like a breeze in the reeds. Hearing it play in a solemn pulse for more than an hour until night fell, I’d use Heaney’s word to touch it like a sounding pole and feel again how very young we are.

The Search – part three

It’s been hard to find curlews over the last few weeks. Not only have the birds turned out to be more scarce than I had feared, but I begin to see that there are also some behavioural tricks that tip the scales against the would-be surveyor.

In a cold spring like this, breeding pairs seem to be running late. They might have a clear idea of where they intend to lay their eggs, but they’re only showing a vague interest in nesting habitats. They’ll scope out good spots, but I’m finding that they don’t linger there for long, and even where I know a pair is present and intending to breed, the birds might spend much of their time elsewhere, returning every few hours to perform a few brief displays. That’s confusing, and it makes it hard to see what’s happening.

Combine this with the theory that when the number of curlews falls below a certain local density, displays become less obvious. That makes sense; there’s no point riding the marches all the time if you don’t have any neighbours. I feel confident that isolated pairs are more secretive at this stage of the breeding cycle than those birds which live in thriving colonies, but I have no evidence to prove this one way or another. If it’s true, there will be a neat irony in the fact that it’s easier to count birds that don’t need to be counted.

I suppose that pairs will become more obvious as we approach the act of egg-laying, but it’s worth remembering that curlews can often almost vanish during the incubation period. There’s no advantage to flagging your presence when you have so much to lose, so curlew activity is often very subdued during late April and early May. Each year I am surprised by curlews that turn up with chicks as if from nowhere, and this is a constant reminder that when birds choose to remain unseen, they simply disappear.

Of course the sad reality is that many pairs in Galloway will fail during the incubation period. Because they’re already quiet during this time, it’s not always easy to interpret their behaviour or monitor their movements in the aftermath of a lost or predated nest. They’ll usually reset and go again, but these second sittings are often much quieter than a first attempt – yet another reason why curlews can be harder to find than you might expect.

Contrast all this against the fact that curlews with chicks are impossible to overlook. They’re always complaining about something, and their frequent alarms make them noisy, obvious and easy to count. But curlews rarely have chicks in Galloway, so it’s hard to use this period of highly conspicuous activity as an opportunity to count what’s where. This is where the rubric is reversed on thin populations being harder to find.

A lone pair of curlews will have to attend to every threat they perceive to their chicks. They’ll mob anything with vigour, and the pressure is never-ending. But when curlews nest in larger, healthier populations, some pairs will take more than their fair share of security detail. This can mean that other pairs simply keep their heads down and let the noisy birds do the talking. That’s great – it’s a healthy behavioural function amongst birds that evolved to work as part of a community – but if some pairs are obvious and others are not, it makes it hard for humans to count them. I have to say that I consider “too many pairs to count accurately” a problem I’d love to have, and it’s certainly not an issue where I’m searching, but it’s yet more grist to the mill for a project that’s already buried up to its neck in geeky detail.

So it’s clear that the best time to get a sense of curlew presence is when the birds have chicks, but I can’t afford to base my survey on something that happens so rarely here. Instead I need to focus on where birds are trying to breed, and within the complexity of that paradigm I start to believe that there must be a pre-chick sweet-spot where all these contradictory concerns align in such a way that would-be parent birds are at their most conspicuous. I’d reckon it’s during laying or immediately before incubation begins, but that’s a window of a few short days that will vary from pair to pair. There’s more to this than meets the eye.

Lapwings 2022

It was too dry when our lapwings came in March, and then the fields were sprayed with slurry. The birds went away on a cold night, and I hoped they’d come back but they never did. Now it seems like the grass is too long for them to have a second chance, and I’m sorry about that. It seems likely that these birds went to breed elsewhere along the coast, and that’s a small consolation. It’s when they don’t come back at all that you really start to worry.

These were the last few lapwings in this parish, and I’ll miss them this spring. There weren’t many birds in this residual pocket, and even if they intend to come back another year, it wouldn’t take much for them to vanish altogether in the space of twelve months. I read my own emotions into moments like these; I imagine that the birds are aware of their plight and fight to resist it. But when disappearance comes, it is never the result of a bird’s decision to resign or throw in the towel. Reduced to low numbers like these, they hardly understand that every time they leave these fields, there’s a chance that they’ll never return; and in future years a passer-by will find the kettle boiled dry and a book laid open on the table at the page where it was left.

But it’s not all gloom and memories of Blue remembered hills. I’ve been astonished by the number of lapwings I’ve found over the last few weeks on days spent hunting down curlews. I never thought to count lapwing pairs because I always believed that their numbers were too few to warrant it – but it turns out that I’ve almost seen as many lapwing pairs as curlews. It’s all relative and linked to expectation – but in two locations I’ve found clusters of lapwings in surprising numbers, and once eight pairs in a single upland field.

I always thought that lapwings were knackered in this part of Galloway, particularly in the uplands. These very isolated clusters give cause for hope, and it’s worth noting that both are based on estates where top-notch gamekeepers are working. I’m starting to realise how sensitive lapwings can be to predation, and one of the biggest differences between “having birds” and “not having birds” is often predator control. It’s extraordinary what keepers can do within the confines of the law, but some challenges lie beyond the reach of simple dedication. It’s worth noting that the single biggest cluster of lapwings in this part of the county exists at an RSPB reserve where the birds are surrounded by a badger-proof fence. That fence was extremely expensive to build, and it would not exist if there was not a substantial amount of data to prove how vulnerable these birds are to badgers, even when the habitat is perfect and all other predators are managed.

Away from a couple of big upland clusters, there’s a thin scattering of lapwings across a range of farmland habitats from Castle Douglas to Dumfries. I’ve marked as many as I’ve found and benefitted from useful tips sent in by others, but I’ll need to work fast if I want to capture the full picture. The reality is that as these birds inevitably start to fail over the next couple of weeks, they’ll drift away and become less obvious. It’s useful to have a picture of where lapwings intend to breed, but this information is no proof of the fact that they’re successful.

Bolt-Hole

I found a stranger in the close. He’d come to introduce himself as my new neighbour, and also to find out where the stopcock was for his water. It was good to meet him, but in truth I’m not yet done with my old neighbour who died last spring, so perhaps the odds were already stacked against me liking this man, who is a dentist from Glasgow. 

He hopes to come down to stay in his new second home at weekends, but it’ll be tricky at first while the renovation works are going on. The whole place needs a lot of modernising, he said, and I let him go on, But there’s so much potential in the yard, and there’s five acres of grass beside the house. You could put some of your sheep in there if you like, he told me. It would save him mowing it – an idea which made him laugh. Then he said My wife is keen on rewilding, so I’ll ask her and we can make a plan; and have you read that book by Arabella Tree?

The guy’s just fine, but I was struck by the fact that he never wanted to be here. His wife and he had looked at other properties in Argyll and the Borders, though when it came to the crunch only Galloway was cheap enough. He told me this as if I’d weighed up options of my own; as if place to me was choice and I’d come from somewhere else myself. Besides which Jenny (that’s his wife) said it was a good investment. It would surely hold its value, particularly if they make us into a National Park. She likes to think the kids will come and stay here sometimes, and maybe go to the Watersports Centre.

I hear talk of a housing crisis beyond the horizon. The radio says This country will die if it ever stops growing, and each night I lie in bed and feel the heave of another million souls waking up to the realisation that what I have is theirs as well. Of course it’s only fair that folk should be allowed to buy themselves a piece of peace in the country, but here is how that trend is manifested – small talk with passing strangers in the close, putting soft and reasonable faces to the fashion of “bolt-hole” ownership. But it’s no great secret that second homes kill rural communities. In Wales, second homes are considered to be a damnable hazard, so it’s strange that everybody who has one is able to provide a plausible, laudable reason for why they’re not part of the problem.

Yes, he’s fine by me, this man who comes here once a week and turns the lights off when he goes. But I won’t pretend that he is my new neighbour, because I do not have a neighbour now.

The Search – part two

In his indispensable book Galloway and the Borders, the naturalist Derek Ratcliffe frames the curlew’s former abundance in Galloway against the principal stumbling block which confronts the would-be conservationist today – “Regrettably, I never counted curlew numbers [in Galloway post WW2] and – as far as I am aware – neither did anybody else; so there is nothing to back my claim that this was some of the best curlew ground in Britain”.

That’s my problem in a nutshell. As I continue to stick pins in the map for my curlew survey, I’m painfully aware that whatever number I reach in the end will be the first of its kind; without precedent or context, it will stand on the edge of meaninglessness. I know that the birds are doing badly, but even after all the legwork and chasing of leads, I’ll never know how many birds have already gone or even where we started. But a number still has value beyond the start of future surveys; a number is compelling in a way that flabby words like less or not so many cannot touch. It’s a first step, although I must say that early results seem to suggest that while I forecast my hope to find a hundred pairs, the final total is likely to be something less than half that number.

But anecdotal reports of the curlew’s former prosperity have a more insidious impact on this work as well. When I went to the Mart on Monday morning, I couldn’t help but ask around and find some leads on where the curlews were. I asked nine farming friends if they had curlews on their land. I was pretty sure that five of these guys would have curlews, and if the other four didn’t, they might’ve seen birds going around. Every single one of those farmers confirmed that they had curlews, and some even laughed at the suggestion that I’d have to ask. “Of course!” said a pal of my uncle’s who keeps cattle beyond Springholm.

Feeling increasingly silly, I followed up the question by asking if they’d seen the birds back this year. Each man thought about it, seeming puzzled. Come to think of it, they said, four of them hadn’t seen curlews this year. When pressed and with time to think, one of them even reckoned it might’ve been almost ten years since he’d seen curlews breeding on his land. The memory was hitched to a hundred others and bracketed under the universal “By Christ, but doesn’t time fly”. That was a useful lesson for me. It seemed like most of the current crop of farmers grew up believing that curlews were an infinite presence in the landscape – they’d never paused to think of the birds as anything like a reason for concern. Pinned down to focus on curlews in isolation, the situation was rendered both real and personal.

This is one of the first and most resounding obstacles I’ve found in this project so far. It’s not that people don’t care about curlews; they just can’t believe that there’d ever be a problem with a species that was always so abundant. As if to confirm this, of the four farmers who’d lost their curlews, three reckoned “they must’ve gone somewhere else”.

Of the remaining guys I spoke to, three of them said they weren’t sure if birds had returned in 2022. That’s fair enough. Two of them hadn’t been out on the hill much, and there’s no doubt this is a busy time of year. And it’s no criticism of modern shepherding, but it’s worth noting that what farmers gain from using quad bikes, they often lose from a wider experience of the land. If you’re going round the sheep on a bike, you’re liable to miss everything that doesn’t spring up from the rushes before you – you can’t hear a thing, and on rough ground you’re usually looking where you’re going.

Further, when I go out to look for black grouse on foot, I’m often forced to get up far earlier than I have to in the morning to beat the sound of quad bikes and shepherds on their early rounds. The sound of a lek can travel for a mile or more, but at long range the vibration of an ATV’s engine can warp to overlay the wobbly sound of a blackcock. If you’re on the hill after 6am, you’ll struggle to hear much on account of quad bikes – so it’s not surprising that farmers with an engine between their knees can fail to clock a great deal of what’s going on. I don’t think that’s unfair, particularly since most shepherds aren’t out there for the joy of birdsong anyway.

Two final farmers said they definitely hadn’t seen birds returning, and I know them well enough to be sure they wouldn’t have missed a pair. They hadn’t really given it much thought and put the absence down to a cold spring. Curlews will be here soon, they said, as if trying to reassure me. I’ll keep in touch and see if their birds do return.

I got a great deal from this exercise. It’s fascinating to understand how people perceive change, particularly when those people can be both drivers of and remedy for issues like curlew decline. But alongside these diverting lessons, I have to record the simple fact that since Monday, I’ve walked eight of the nine farms owned by those nine farmers, all of whom in the first instance assured me that they had curlews. Only one had a single pair.

As always, if you see curlews in the Urr catchment east to the Nith, please let me know at gallowaycurlew@gmail.com – my enormous thanks to everybody who’s been in touch so far – particularly the farmers who have helped so much.