The Shannon Callows are fresh and green - wide flat fields of grass and herbs border the river Shannon between Lough Ree and Lough Derg in central Ireland - an area of roughly 30 sq miles. Here the river seems to relax and spread over the saucer -shaped basin that is the Midlands - the soft lapping of the water seranaded by songbirds and the lowing of cattle. The traditional blessing - "May the rain fall softly upon your fields" - seems to fit the Callows well. In some ways the Shannon and its floodplain is the Irish equivalent of the Nile, the river is the source of life. The yearly winter floods spread nutrients over the fields and in the summer the grasslands are alive with insects feeding off wild flowers and herbs and cows feeding off the grass. This is rich dairy and beef country. Shocking then that in this land of soft sediment and water there are only between 10 and 15 pairs of curlews, no one knows for sure, but not more than that. Yet only 30 years ago they would have been so common they would have been jostling for space to nest.
The Callows should resound to the trilling of the curlew - the air filled with its lyrical vibrations, spreading out over the plain like ripples over water. Yet over the last couple of days I haven't heard a single call. I saw one bird flying low and cowed, but it was gone quickly - hopefully back to a nest on the island of Inishee in the middle of the river. It somehow didn't seem like a typical curlew, usually so ready to protest at any unwelcome presence - this one was covert, trying not to be noticed.
Curlews are nesting now and here they don't seem to make a fuss if they think danger is near, they skulk silently away, keeping a low profile. Someone suggested this might be learned behaviour over the last years as numbers fell. Keep quiet, keep out of sight. In the days when there were so many of them they would rise together from the nests dotted through the fields and mob any crow or fox - but now they are loners.
BirdWatch Ireland are making great efforts to help them - and the other waders plus the corncrakes -that should be so common. Inishee Island in the Shannon is now a fortress, fenced off by a powerful electric fence that keeps the foxes, badgers and pine martens, which swim over from the mainland, from feasting on the nests. It is on Inishee that the last corncrakes were making a comeback, benefiting from the peace, but last year was the first year when no corncrakes called in the Callows. It looks like they have gone, and it could be climate change beginning to bite.
Farmers here are used to dealing with flooding during the summer months in one year out of every five or six, but since 2000 the Shannon Callows have flooded badly in the summer every year. The water inundates the breeding grounds and the corncrake has been drowned out. It affects all the birds - and the farmers who may lose their hay.
2 pairs of curlews are nesting on Inishee - but at least they are still just about there - hanging on - and hopefully there will be no flooding this year between April and August. Only time will tell but it has been one hell of a wet year again.
I am coming towards the end of this first stage and have travelled down the centre of Ireland - following the loughs and waterways of this magical inland treasure. Most of it appears peaceful and calm, if you shield your eyes from the horrors of the stripped bogs and vast tracts of uniform forestry of a monoculture of Sitka spruce. But it is clear curlews are almost non existant, just a handful of pairs dotted around here and there - trying to breed but battling so many problems. They seem to me to be like stars shining in the dark sky. That might sound overly dramatic - but if you look at the Irish landscape through curlew eyes, it is hard to draw another conclusion.
I have met wonderful people - dedicated to helping the curlew survive this time of annihilation - they too are stars shining in the midst of the darkness of lack of awareness. I have picked up a kind of fatalistic approach quite a few times - "sad, but isn't that just the way of things these days - what can you do?" Curlews here need people to first of all be aware and then to care enough to act - that is what is needed - then they may recover.