Friday 13 April 2018

Creative Irish Curlews

There is an extraordinary passage in What the Curlew Said – Nostos Continued by the Irish writer and philosopher John Moriarty.  He describes listening to a curlew calling on a beach in County Kerry.

“What an unearthly aria that call was.
Sometimes I would think, it isn’t a call at all.
But if it isn’t, what is it?
Is it a spontaneity of eternity that has somehow come through into time?
Hearing his voice, a god who had made the curlew would almost instantly want to remake himself as the thing he had made.

Photo by Peter Rutt

Universes he couldn’t call into being with a human voice he could call into being with the voice of a curlew.”

Few other birds evoke such strong images - other worlds, other universes, other ways of being. But when you hear a curlew call, it is not so difficult to understand.  To listen to the clear, sharp “curlee, curlee,” firing like arrows across the horizon, or to the urgent crescendo of bubbling notes rippling out over the bog, is to hear mystical music that touches something deep in our psyche.  John Moriarty is not the first to be enchanted by curlews, and he will not be the last.

The Irish have woven this stilty-legged, crescent-billed wading bird into their lives for as long as there has been myth, music, parable and poetry. They appear in the earliest folktales where they are storm birds, warning fishermen to turn their boats for home, or farmers of oncoming rain.  They are said to have saved St Patrick from drowning when they called him to shore when he was lost at sea in heavy mist. A medieval monk, disturbed from his nightly prayers, wrote, “The Curlew cannot sleep at all/His voice is shrill across the deep/Reverberations of the storm;/Between the streams he will not sleep.” It is a bird of the wild, wet fields and bogs, of windswept estuary and rocky shore. For many it is the quintessential voice of the wilderness. It is also the sound of internal desolation - a broken heart. W B Yeats refers to curlews many times in his writings, most famously in his poem, “He Reproves the Curlew”

O curlew cry no more to the air,
Or only to the water in the West;
Because your crying brings to my mind
Passion-dimmed eyes and long heavy hair
That was shaken out over my breast.
There is enough evil in the crying of the wind.

The cry of the curlew has been used throughout time to expresses fear, mysticism, lost love, joy and wild places. It is a malleable, shape-shifting call that has ignited many creative sparks.  It is one of the great gifts of the natural world that in its variety of colour, shape and sound it helps us to express the intangible and to give voice to inner feelings.  The creatures and landscapes of the earth are part of our creativity and fundamental to a vibrant culture.  It seems to me,” said David Attenbrough, “that the natural world is the greatest source of excitement; the greatest source of visual beauty; the greatest source of intellectual interest. It is the greatest source of so much in life that makes life worth living.

It would be a tragedy then, to allow the Curlew, a bird that has provided so much inspiration, to slip away. If Ireland allows the curlew to fall silent, it loses so much more than just another species, it loses part of Irish heritage. In the late 1980s there were around 5,000 curlews breeding throughout the country, they were a common sight and anyone over the age of 40 will remember them.  The first national Curlew survey was completed by NPWS in 2017 and there are now less than 130 pairs left. That is an astonishing decline. It is not an exaggeration to say that Curlew are facing extinction in Southern Ireland in less than 10 years. That sentence is almost too hard to write, it sounds like extreme fear-mongering - too exaggerated.  Yet the figures are stark.  The graph of Curlew population plotted against time plummets downwards and will hit zero very soon indeed. And this has happened on our watch.

Curlew on Malahide beach

Ignorance is no excuse in law, but it seems to be in conservation. When I walked across Ireland, Wales and Scotland in 2016 to raise awareness about the decline of the Curlew, I was astonished how few people knew what was happening to this once common bird.  And that included nature lovers and bird watchers.   Our interconnected, info-rich world is somehow failing when it comes to connecting us with the life that lives all around. How do we bridge that gap?  What will energise us to take an interest and to act? Because if we don’t, then one day very soon we will look out over bog and field and realise the curlew sings no more.

The disappearance of curlews is due to a perfect storm of inappropriate forestry, draining of wet land, intensification of fields, increase in predators such as foxes and crows and the mass stripping of bogs. There are no easy solutions, but there are ways forward that are being explored by the Curlew Task Force, set up in January 2017. The Curlew Task Force is a unique working group of farmers, conservationists, foresters, turf cutters, academics and the NPWS, who are determined to find ways to work together to help Curlew across Ireland.  As there are so few nests left in the Republic, time is of the essence.  The Curlew Conservation Programme is the primary vehicle for enacting conservation measures on the ground, where they matter most. Some nests will have electric fences erected around them to protect the eggs from foxes.  Increased fox and crow control in the nesting season will also give the chicks a greater chance of survival.  Cooperation with turf cutters and farmers to leave areas where birds are nesting until the chicks are fledged will give the birds added safety.  Vegetation can also be managed to give the curlews the varied heights of sward they need for nesting and feeding. Eggs are often laid in long grass for protection but growing chicks need to feed in shorter grass with lots of insects. In some bogs, drainage ditches will be blocked to re-wet the ground, which curlews prefer for nesting, and softer ground is easier to probe by their long, sensitive bills. Agreements with foresters will be sought to protect nesting and foraging sites from plantations.

And while the land managers and professional conservationists do their work, the rest of us must learn to listen out for and to love the Curlew again.  Understanding what is happening to them is vital to halt the decline. Raising awareness about where they breed and what they need has to be increased. We need to teach our children to recognise their beautiful calls, and to tell them the stories and poems that celebrate this birds’ long association with culture. We need to go out on a warm summer evening and revel in that fluty trill - that sound of the Irish summer – that has inspired poets and mystics through time.

Ireland has a long and rich connection to nature, the roots are there, they only need be nurtured once again for Ireland to be truly green and full of life.  Bringing back the Curlew from the brink of extinction as a breeding bird will be a huge positive step towards a brighter future for all of life on the Emerald Isle.

World Curlew Day is on April 21, my book Curlew Moon is out on April 19, published by William Collins.

Oh - and the fabulous World Curlew Day logo was designed by my cousin Nicola Duffy from Letterkenny!

Monday 19 June 2017

Curlew Country Visit

It was a bitter-sweet visit to the Curlew Country project in Shropshire on June 12th. It was a baking hot day, and for a couple of hours before lunch Amanda Perkins and Tony Cross from the project, Phil Sheldrake (RSPB), Mike Smart (ace birdwatcher) and myself tried to find three or four chicks that were somewhere in a large hay meadow. They had hatched from a nest that had been surrounded by an electric fence to protect it from predators like foxes and badgers. This is the first year the project has trialled fences and it has undoubtedly increased the survival of eggs.  Whether that success translates into more fledged chicks is yet to be seen. Curlew chicks have wanderlust in their blood and once they find their very large feet are fit for walking, they are off.  If they are not protected by electricity, they have to rely wholly on their parents to warn them of danger.

Mike Smart, Amanda Perkins and Phil Sheldrake

It’s a pretty good system though.  Vigilant, feisty and sneaky, curlews take parenting very seriously. Vigilant in that they can see danger approaching from a long way off, hundreds of metres, and begin yapping and barking in alarm. Feisty because it can be a full-on bombardment of sound, like being attacked with an audial machine gun. And sneaky as the alarming bird may well be quite a distance away from the chicks, leading the dangerous creature down a blind alley. Meanwhile the chicks have either sunk low into a ditch or depression, or they have legged it into impenetrable rushes – which is what they did on the day we visited.

Tony Cross

Trying to find small fluff balls in a vast meadow is not for the weak of spirit. Tony used a radio tracker to narrow down the options, which was a patch of wet rush near to the field boundary. Try as we might we couldn’t find them, and as standing on them is a real possibility, we gave up. I was disappointed in one way, but glad in another. I am relieved they are so hard to locate, because if we couldn’t find them, even armed with technology, then a fox will find it hard too.  Knowing they were there was sweet enough for me. The bleeps on the receiver were heart-lifting – I didn’t have to actually see them to feel delighted and relieved they are still in the wild. Every chick is precious, and three packages of preciousness are still in this hay meadow – or they were on Monday June 12th.

The bitter side of the visit is the knowledge that the chances of these chicks surviving is very slim. For the past two years all the chicks that managed to hatch in the project area were predated before a month was up. Curlew are adapted to high levels of mortality – each pair only needs to raise one chick every other year for a population to remain stable – but even this isn’t being met. Throughout the country, chicks and eggs are either being eaten by predators or killed by their other nemesis - agricultural machines.

Screen grab from Curlew Country curlew camera

In another field, this time a large grass field used for silage, Amanda showed us where at least three chicks were sliced up as silage was cut in early June. As each year a pair of curlews chose to nest was in a field used to provide food for cattle – they dice with death – literally. The eggs were protected by an electric fence, and so survived to hatching, but once the chicks wandered outside they became collateral damage to our farming system.  And this wasn’t the only brood to meet this fate. Out of 22 nests located in the Shropshire project area, 9 chicks were alive on the day we visited.

Looking at the silage field and knowing the fate of the chicks was a sad way to end the day, but it was also a heartening visit too. Curlews continue to come every year to this most beautiful part of Shropshire. Every Spring they try to nest in the same places - their ancestral homes. As long as they come back there is hope we can help them. There is no shortage of goodwill amongst farmers or volunteers, everyone loves curlews. But there is a mismatch between caring about a bird and doing what it takes to save it. Sometimes that mismatch is in a lack of understanding about what is actually needed, and it is surprising how little we know about a bird that was once so common.  Or it can be that money simply takes priority, and losing a silage crop is too expensive when life on a farm is stressed enough. Or maybe it is the dilemma posed by predator control. Some people, understandably, find it hard to accept that foxes and crows may have to die so that curlews can live.  Whatever the reason, curlews continue to decline across the UK at an alarming rate.

The Curlew Country project is inspirational and is doing a vital job in bringing into focus the enormous problems facing our largest wader. Nothing less than the might of UK farming, half a million badgers and foxes and a million crows bear down on them at the most fragile and vulnerable time of their lives. Curlew Country is working with everyone on the ground to find solutions, and until the last curlew calls, there is hope they will succeed in reversing the fortunes of this most wonderful and enigmatic of birds.

Friday 14 April 2017

Tight Clothes, Nature and Angst

When I worked with the wise and delightful Monty Don on Radio 4’s Shared Planet, I remember him saying someone had asked him the secret to being happy and content. His answer struck me as worth spreading around – wear loose clothes and spend time outside. Now that is sensible. Wearing tight clothes can have the effect of making our brains feel constrained too, I certainly can’t relax or breathe so well when I am aware of edges, buttons, belts – things that inhibit.  I think it is harder to give out to the world when your body feels drawn in.

Monty Don

And going outside – well how much more evidence do we need to show that breathing outside air, feeling soil, smelling the scent from trees, grass and flowers, feeling rain and sun, seeing green and grey and blue – all calm our emotions and help healing.  I only wish major international meetings on war, weapons, refugees, the environment and so on happened outside in a meadow or wild garden, instead of inside constraining rooms.  I think we would come to different decisions.

Some trees are particularly good at helping.  In days gone by German village elders would hold judicial meetings under lime (linden) trees, and that is not a surprise.  Lime trees were said to evoke wise thoughts.  The scent of lime, particularly in the summer, is intoxicating and was said to help cure epilepsy, headaches, insomnia and bad nerves. This poem is by Wilhelm Müller

Der Lindenbaum
By the fountain, near the gate,
There stands a linden tree;
I have dreamt in its shadows
so many sweet dreams.
I carved on its bark
so many loving words;
I was always drawn to it,
whether in joy or in sorrow.
Today again I had to pass it
in the dead of night.
And even in the darkness
I had to close my eyes.
Its branches rustled
as if calling to me:
“Come here, to me, friend,
Here you will find your peace!”
The frigid wind blew
straight in my face,
my hat flew from my head,
I did not turn back.
Now I am many hours
away from that spot
and still I hear the rustling:
“There you would have found peace!”
The Japanese have a word for the sense of peace you get from a woodland walk -  “wood air bathing” shinrin-yoku, breathing in the healing, enriching oils emitted from trees that lowers blood pressure, boosts the immune system and calms thoughts. Throughout Japan there are shinrin-yoku walks where families have picnics and be together to de-stress.
Last week Iseemed to come across yet more horrible stories of  young children increasingly suffering panicattacks, depression, stress and low self-esteem and many other words for a mind in turmoil.  Teenagers too.  I know of a few young people now who have dropped out of university recently because of depression.  How much of this is related to the increasingly indoor, removed-from-nature life so many of us lead today is unsure, but it is hard not to draw some connections between the two. Children live virtual indoor lives, not real out door ones.

I watch the school kids from the local secondary school walk home each day along our very city-centre street right in the centre of Bristol.  They are bursting with that feeling of wanting to run, shout, mess around, kick balls or whatever.  But in the middle of the city there is nowhere to do that – just cans to kick, and swear and shout and lots of pushing each other around, which annoys middle-aged people who shout at them and complain to the school. I wish they had a big field to go to, somewhere to let off steam, and maybe even find something interesting to look at that for a short while takes the mind to other realms.  But this doesn’t happen, instead all of this youthful energy gets bottled up and who knows where it goes.

So – would a GCSE in Natural History help encourage kids to go outside? Get them to really look, smell, touch, sense the world they live in – even a local park? Would it help give their minds a break to think where swallows come from or how snakes shed their skin and why an egg is the shape and colour it is? And if it taught the connection between well-being and nature – would that help?  And if, through having access to nature-literature, they learned ways of expressing feelings that only natural things evoke  – would that go some way to stemming this awful spread of youthful angst? Concentrating on awe, wonder, joy, beauty, mystery, fear, trepidation, etc.  Those are the feelings that come from knowing the natural world.  Re-engagement with who and what we are on a living, breathing, vibrant planet can only ever be good.  We are a long way from that at the moment - let’s do something to try to change it.  Please sign the petition.