WING AND A PRAYER Mayo is now one of the few places in Ireland where people can still enjoy the sights and sounds of breeding curlew.
Farmers offered support to enhance curlew habitats, public encouraged to report bird calls and sightings
The curlew is one of the most evocative birds of the rural landscape. Its long, downward-curved bill, elegant neck, large greyish-brown mottled body and long legs are perfectly engineered for the task of wading through estuaries and damp land, searching for the invertebrates living in the mud. Its haunting and evocative call – the unmistakable ascending ‘cur...lee, cur...lee’ whistle – is as much part of the northwest as windswept blackthorn and wet bogland.
The bird also sometimes produces a gorgeous ‘cew, cew, cew’ song, while it can emit a long, rapid bubbling repetition of a single note in breeding season, which has just begun and runs until early June.
Sadly, curlews have suffered widespread declines across its European range, and nowhere has this been more severe than in Ireland. It is no exaggeration to say that the native breeding curlew population is in free-fall. According to expert estimates, there has been a staggering 97 percent decline since the 1980s. A national survey, carried out from 2015 to 2017, found that less than 150 known breeding pairs remain. It was predicted that without action, the curlew will be extinct as a breeding species in Ireland within a decade.
Ireland is also host to thousands of visiting curlew in winter, but these birds return to their own breeding grounds in Britain, Scandinavia and Russia in the spring. The presence of these migrant birds may have masked the decline of the native breeding population, which remain all year, breeding here between April and early June.
The curlew is Ireland’s only breeding species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature red list of endangered species. It is also a red-listed species on the Birds of Conservation Concern in Ireland list.
In a last-ditch effort to save these beautiful birds, the Curlew Conservation Programme was established by the National Parks and Wildlife Service in 2017. Curlew Action Teams have now been established in six different regions, and these teams are liaising with local communities and landowners.
To raise awareness of the curlew’s extreme vulnerability, April 21 has been designated annual World Curlew Day. It is a grass-roots initiative, supported by major environmental organisations around the world, to raise awareness of the plight of curlews and to encourage activities to help them.
Fidelma Flannelly is the Curlew Advisory Officer for the Mayo and North Roscommon region. She, and members of her dedicated team, visited Mayo County Council in Castlebar last week, bringing their urgent message and spreading awareness by raising a flag for World Curlew Day outside the council offices.
“As a nation, it is our responsibility to save these birds from extinction,” she explains. “We must recognise how important it is for us to coexist with curlew, and indeed all native species; every ecosystem is finely balanced – from the plants to the apex predators, every species has a vital role to play. If a link in the chain is removed by extinction, the fine balance is catastrophically affected.”
Curlews depend on open habitats, such as bogs and grasslands. They nest on the ground on damp, rushy pastures, open moorland, meadows and heather. They probe for food with their long, down-curved bills, searching in the soft, wet areas along ditches or shallow pools, where their chicks can also easily find insects to eat. If disturbed near a nest site, curlew will remain in the area and fly in circles above the ‘intruder’ while letting out loud alarm calls.
Part of the reason for the population decline is the fragmentation and loss of their habitat due to farming, the reclamation and drainage of marshy fields and moorland, and sprawl. Place this habitat pressure alongside high populations of predators, such as foxes, pine martens, mink and hooded crows, and it’s easy to see why these gentle birds are finding it almost impossible to rear their chicks from their nest on the ground.
Mayo is now one of the few places in Ireland where people can still enjoy the sights and sounds of breeding Curlew. The Curlew Conservation Programme has a team on the ground identifying nesting sites and protecting birds from further predation.
This year is already looking like it could be an encouraging year for the county’s population. “We’ve identified more breeding pairs in East Mayo,” Fidelma tells The Mayo News. “Four breeding pairs in a small area in fact – and this is quite unusual. There has also been reports of a fifth bird in a different area, raising the exciting possibility of five breeding pairs within 20k radius.”
In addition, Fidelma and her Curlew Action Team are looking to work with Mayo and north Roscommon farmers by providing the financial support and advice they need to help enhance habitat where curlew breed and feed, thanks to funding from the National Parks and Wildlife Service.
“If we don’t work together now, we may be the last generation to hear the curlew during the summer mornings and evenings across our countryside, and children growing up today may never experience what we know as part of what makes the Mayo countryside what it is,” says Fidelma. “I am asking for anybody who has hears or sees curlew this spring or summer to make contact, and I would be very happy to see how we can support landowners and the curlew.”
Sending their plaintive calls out over the west’s magical wild and wet places – our estuaries, mountain slopes, moorland, bogs, meadows and coastline – curlew have inspired countless generations of poets, artists and musicians. Wouldn’t it be desperately sad if their melancholy cry were to become a sad reminder of the their former glory, and the Irish breeding population was lost from our skies and lands forever?
If you hear and/or see a curlew, or if you observe obvious signs of breeding, please contact Fidelma Flannelly, Curlew Advisory Officer, on 083 8301843 or email email@example.com.