The call of the iconic Curlew is a distinctive sound that you won’t forget, but sadly is a rare sound on Dartmoor these days.
Curlew are in dramatic, national decline, they are classified on the UK Birds of Conservation Concern’s ‘Red list’ and Dartmoor provides one of the most important Southerly breeding populations. In Devon the Curlew breeding population has declined by 85% since 1985.
His Royal Highness, King Charles III, has taken a keen interest in the conservation of this species and Curlew numbers on Dartmoor have been monitored since 2005 as part of a partnership project. This work identified that there were little more than one or two nesting pairs each year and predators were a significant threat to their eggs.
In 2018, a National Curlew Summit was hosted by His Royal Highness on Dartmoor to see if more could be done to help this iconic bird.
Plans were developed that included working at a landscape scale to enhance habitats, undertaking targeted predator control and using a new technique called ‘head-starting’ to boost the population. Developed by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT), this enables the rearing and release of Curlew.
The WWT and Natural England had found that a number of Curlew eggs laid alongside RAF runways in East Anglia, are removed to protect aircraft. These could be used to support smaller populations elsewhere, using the head-starting process.
WWT collect the eggs from RAF bases and incubate them in a specially designed unit at their centre at Slimbridge. The eggs are then taken to Dartmoor prior to hatching and once hatched the chicks are ‘brooded’ under warming lamps prior to release into a specially built pen.
After about seven weeks, the Curlew are released. We hope they will return to the area to breed in the future, this is usually when they are capable of breeding from two years old.
Did you know?
Curlews are ground nesting birds; their nests can be easily disturbed if we are not careful. This makes them vulnerable to predators. They are the largest UK wading bird, instantly recognisable by its long legs, curved bill and distinctive call. Curlews breed on moorland, heath and wet grasslands in the spring and then head to costal estuaries to spend winter.
This project on Dartmoor started in 2021. That year, 33 young Curlew were reared and successfully released on Dartmoor, in 2022 27 Curlew were released.
The released Curlew are identified individually using yellow colour marked rings and flags. This allows Curlews to be spotted when feeding or roosting on estuaries, where they spend their winter and if they return to Dartmoor to breed in future years. Most of the Curlews spotted so far have been in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.
Farmers, commoners and landowners have been a key part of the success of this work so far, enhancing and maintaining habitats. This has included increased, targeted cattle and pony grazing in certain areas and the creation of wet pools known as scrapes, to provide a feeding habitat, as well as predator control.
The Farming in Protected Landscapes programme has also provided funding to improve an area of upland farm landscape to help manage the land to create habitats to assist the declining populations of Curlews and other wading birds such as Snipe and Lapwings. The species rich grasslands, colourful upland heath and peat wetlands of Dartmoor are maintained by grazing and traditional farming practices that have continued here for millennia.
The Dartmoor project is the only upland head-starting initiative in the UK and what we learn from it will be very valuable. The data and knowledge gained will help with other national Curlew conservation work.
Head-starting buys time to support the Curlew as part of a wider recovery strategy on Dartmoor. This includes conservation measures taking place across the landscape to protect any native nesting Curlew, their eggs and chicks. We hope this will improve chick survival and fledging success, while also creating the right conditions for head-started birds. This involves monitoring nesting sites and the targeted control of predators that have become an increasing problem.