Monday, 20 March 2017

The Hills are Alive

Its all kicking off in curlew land, they are streaming back to breeding grounds now and is great to get the reports from all over the country. People are posting on Twitter about hearing them and seeing them, and on Facebook, they are working their magic again this year.  The harbingers of spring are back and ready for action.

The first curlews arrived back in lowland areas in February, the more upland birds are just getting there.  In Northern Ireland the curlews in Antrim are said to come back to the hills on St Patrick's Day - which was the 17th March.

Slemish Mountain, Antrim, where St Patrick was held captive.

Mike Smart, a curlew watcher and recorder in Gloucestershire, and all round good egg, wrote a great description a couple of weeks ago of two birds that had just got to a meadow in his area:

"They seem to me to adopt very characteristic behaviour; they are generally in twos, stalking round in a rather proprietorial sort of way, a little way apart, feeding quietly, and not getting very close together.  Sometimes however, they move quite close together and start courtship display, in a moderate way: running around quite quickly together, sometimes in parallel, sometimes one ahead of the other, often picking up bits of grass or vegetation as they go, and throwing it down again; this can last for ten minutes.  On one occasion, the male opened his wings slightly and did a couple of flaps, and seemed to hold his tail up, rather like a Snipe; but I haven’t seen the slow ballet with outstretched quivering wings yet."

Others are reporting the same kind of behaviour, and Noel Kiernan who watches curlews on the wild and beautiful islands on Lough Ree in S Ireland also noticed 5 pairs behaving as though they were gearing up to breeding. That lovely bubbling call will soon be trailing over the meadows and moors of Britain and Ireland - well I hope so.  Actually, not so much in Ireland as there are only 130 pairs left, but where they still hang on these wild songsters will be adding joy to people's lives in a way that cannot by valued by money.

Lough Ree from

All of us curlew lovers will be watching and waiting to see how this season progresses and if curlews can hang in in our very human world. To keep this wild sprite though is a challenge, we may not be prepared to do what it takes to make room for uneconomic species, no matter how lovely and joyous they are. But I don't actually believe that - I think we will make it happen, because we are not just consumers, we are so much more.  No one just thinks about money.  We have so much in our lives that we don't put a pound sign next to. We don't charge for the time it takes to read a book, or walk outside, make a birthday cake, spend time with someone who needs us. We don't think about money when it comes to love, affection, respect, - those soul moments.

Photos by permission of Tony Cross

Post the Ireland and Slimbridge conferences more people are now involved in monitoring the birds and working out the best way to protect them - in ways that are suitable for their bit of the world.  perhaps that is putting signs up to tell dog walkers to keep dogs on leads around a known nest site until mid July.  Or maybe nests in some places may need electric fences to stop the eggs being eaten (but they won't stop the chicks being got unfortunately). Or even some lethal predator control is required in certain problem areas for the time of breeding?  Stocking density might have to be reduced.  It is all about what is needed where, and we need to have open and positive discussions about the way forwards.

But so far, the 2 conferences have shown just how much we British and Irish love these birds (and so much else too).  We don't want them to disappear, we don't just want to make money out of the land. It is clear to me we want a singing planet, not just a money-making one.  

If you are on Twitter search for curlew or curlews and you will get some great pictures and heartening tweets about the birds.  I am so grateful for those who write to me to tell me what is happening - and for being involved in the curlew groups as they gear up for the next few months.

Curlews are in a better place than they were a year ago - thank you to everyone who has been so supportive and for those rolling up their sleeves now and getting down to the serious business of looking after our birds.

Author Kathryn Norbury (The Fish Ladder) suggested making a Year of the Curlew.  Bit late for this year - but next?  Seems a great idea!

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