Wednesday, 31 March 2010


The curlews are back in the dale. Think everyone loves to hear and see them.
I found this article from the Times Online very interesting.

Controlling predators can save the curlew

It’s unfashionable, but shooting a fox or catching a stoat is good for wading birds

The last two curlews came back to our strip of Perthshire moorland at the weekend, wheeling overhead with their mournful, fluting call, plunging their beaks into the mud, picking their way warily through the heather. They reminded us that spring has actually arrived after three months of non-stop snow. It was wonderful to see them again.

But the days when we regularly saw flocks of these wading birds are long gone. Their numbers have been steadily dwindling, and it will be touch and go whether the chicks produced by our remaining pair will survive the attentions of the predators who watch their nests every bit as keenly as we do. Alongside the curlew, equally vulnerable, is a lone lapwing (also known as a peewit), still without a mate. Just another sad account of a declining species? Well, not quite.

Less than 30 miles away, in the glens of Angus, there is a different story. There reports tell of more waders than have been seen for many years. They have come back in profusion, nesting on heather and marshland, rearing young in ever larger numbers.

The explanation is one that will be resisted fiercely by conservationists, but is almost certainly right. The birds have come back to the Angus glens because they are safer there. The numbers of foxes, crows, weasels and stoats, creatures that pose such a threat to ground-nesting birds, have been brought under control by an army of gamekeepers, brought in by a new generation of wealthy landowners keen to see the revival of the great grouse moors that have been in decline for more than 20 years. They have spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on activities that are scarcely talked about in conservation circles, but are standard practice on a well-managed moor: trapping carrion crows, shooting foxes, catching stoats and weasels, controlling deer numbers, and dipping sheep regularly so that disease-carrying ticks are killed off.

Their success has been measured by rising numbers of grouse, which are now an important industry in the shooting season. But the by-product has been a marked increase in the numbers of curlew, lapwing and even the once-rare golden plover.

Lest this is dismissed as merely “anecdotal” evidence, a remarkable nine-year survey has just been completed at Otterburn in Northumberland, where the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust tested out the theory that predators were the principal threat to wading birds. They took two main areas of moorland — one where predators were controlled, one where they were not. The results, published last week, were astounding: waders were more than three times likely to raise their chicks in the areas where trapping took place than in those which remained wild. When, in some years, controls were lifted, numbers dropped.

It is probably one of the most important pieces of moorland research carried out in recent years, and it raises an intriguing point: why has so little attention been paid to it by conservation bodies, such as Natural England, Scottish Natural Heritage or the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds? Surely they should be embracing the Otterburn conclusions and seeing whether they might be applied elsewhere?

There is, of course, a catch. For these organisations to applaud the Game Conservancy’s findings would mean supporting the shooting lobby, backing landowners, coming out in favour of grouse moors. Not only is that a cultural leap too far, it would mean sitting down with the enemy. These, after all, are the people who are regularly accused of persecuting eagles, falcons and hen harriers. Only this month there were headlines again about the numbers of birds of prey found shot or poisoned in Scotland.

That most of these deaths involved buzzards, which have enjoyed a population explosion in recent years, and which regularly feed on the offspring of moorland birds, is considered less important than the occasional killing of a sea eagle or a red kite — species that have been introduced recently and are multiplying fast.

And so there is a stand-off between two sides in the conservation debate. One argues that those who own and farm the land are simply interested in propagating birds for shooting. The other claims that the conservation bodies favour only birds of prey, at the expense of anything else. Between them are acres of common ground — but no one seems able to occupy it. Apart, that is, from our beloved, vanishing, curlew.

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