Written evidence submitted by Curlew Action (ELM0032)


Floodplain Meadows and the Endangered Curlew


This submission is to draw the Committee’s attention to the plight of an iconic British wading bird – the Curlew - and to fact that most of the remaining breeding Curlews in lowland England nest on traditionally farmed grasslands, often in hay meadows in river floodplains. The survival of these Curlews is intimately linked with the continuation of these farming practices – late hay cuts with aftermath grazing, which allow Curlews (which nest on the ground) to raise their chicks before the hay is cut. Early hay or silage cutting is thought to be one of the major causes of the decline. Curlew Action is concerned that the ending of basic farm payments will mean that the traditional late cutting regimes will no longer be financially sustainable, and that ancient grasslands will be transformed into arable cash crops, as has happened over so many other areas of the English countryside, with the consequent decline in breeding populations. There is an urgent need to develop schemes to support such farming techniques, and to reward farmers for production of public good.


Ancient grasslands, some of them mentioned in the Domesday Book, are vital for many other bird species too, such as Lapwing, Snipe, Redshank, Skylark, Yellow Wagtail, Reed Bunting. They are also temporary wetlands in winter and host wintering species from northern Europe, in particular ducks like Wigeon, Teal and Pintail. Importantly, they are of immense value for their rich and varied typical flora: the Floodplains Meadow Partnership estimates that only 3,000 hectares of hay meadow survive in England. The insect and invertebrate life of these grasslands is furthermore a major factor in the richness of their biodiversity.


In addition to these conservation and biodiversity values, grasslands are very effective at sequestration of carbon, probably more effective than forests; they alleviate floods; when open to the public, they make a large contribution to human health and well-being.


It appears that in formulating future farming and environmental policies, most attention has been paid to tangible economic values. Curlew Action urges the EFRA Committee to give urgent consideration to valuing intangible assets such as biodiversity, carbon sequestration, flood alleviation, human health and well-being, and hence to ensure the survival of traditional grassland farmers.


Much more detailed information is available and Curlew Action would be happy to provide more details if the EFRA Committee should require them.   


Background to Curlew in the UK


The Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata was called (in a 2015 article in the authoritative journal ‘British Birds’) “the UK’s most urgent bird conservation issue”. Since then much work has been carried out to investigate the reasons for its dramatic decline (noted not only in UK but across northwest Europe), and in efforts to reverse the downward trend: it is one of the very few species of bird or animal specifically mentioned in the Government’s 25-year Environment Plan, and DEFRA has recently approved and funded the establishment of an English ‘Curlew Recovery Network’. Much work is being carried out by a variety of bodies – Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, British Trust for Ornithology, Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, Natural England – and universities, to understand the Curlew’s basic biology and conservation needs. Other specialist bodies have recently been created: the Curlew Forum grew from a meeting at Slimbridge in 2017 and brings together Curlew fieldworkers with a website at www.curlewcall.org , while Curlew Action has been established to raise funds for Curlew conservation, with a website at www.curlewaction.org .


The UK has a particular international responsibility for conservation of Curlews, since a quarter of the world population breeds in UK. In addition, another quarter of the world population (breeding across northwest Europe from the Netherlands, Germany, along the Baltic and Scandinavia, into Finland and Russia) migrates to the British Isles for the winter.  


Across the UK, the majority of Curlews nowadays breed in upland sites, with strongholds in Scotland, and in England in the Pennines. Curlew Forum and Curlew Action have however devoted their principal concern to once widespread, but now rapidly dwindling populations in the lowlands: it is estimated that less than 500 breeding pairs of Curlews remain south of a line from Cheshire to The Wash; they have disappeared almost entirely from former strongholds like Dartmoor and Exmoor; small pockets of nesting Curlews survive in areas such as the Somerset Levels, the Severn Vale and Avon Vales (Gloucestershire and Worcestershire), Upper Thames Valley (Oxfordshire and Berkshire), Salisbury Plain, the New Forest, Breckland (in Norfolk and Suffolk) and in Shropshire. In most of these areas the remaining breeding populations amount to only 30-40 pairs, though numbers are somewhat larger in Breckland and Shropshire.


The reason for the sharp decline in numbers (not only in England and the UK, but across northwest Europe) is the low production of chicks. In order to maintain population levels, each pair of Curlews would need to produce only one chick every other year, but even this low level is far from being reached, and the decline continues. Without urgent conservation measures, the Curlew could, in a very few years, disappear from lowland England as a breeding species. This would be not merely a conservation tragedy but an immense failure in cultural terms, given the wide popularity of the  Curlew (with its huge down-curved bill and haunting call) in literature, music and folklore; any television costume drama invariably features distant Curlew calls when the director wishes to conjure up an aura of mystery and wildness; fieldworkers researching Curlews have found without exception that farmers and landowners are enthusiastically in favour of maintaining Curlews on their land.


January 2021