Signs of Spring

In the first few days of March the quiet of our Peak District winter uplands is broken by the herald of spring.  The curloo-oo call of the curlew is a sound I eagerly wait for.  It reminds me of my grandparents’ home in the Scottish hills and today is very much part of the Peak District. 

Our curlew is one of 8 related species that are found across the globe.  It’s a big bird, at nearly two feet long with a wingspan to match and that famously curved bill.  In winter, large flocks congregate in the UK’s estuaries with millions of other wading birds feeding up in these food-rich muddy bird-tables.  In spring, they return in smaller groups and in pairs to the moors, fields and pastures of our uplands. 

To raise their hungry chicks, a pair of curlews needs a good supply of worms and a suitably undisturbed and tussocky field to build their scrape of a nest on.  On summer evenings these are the birds that for me make the difference between a landscape that is still and silent and one that is animated and exciting.

In March and April I love watching their courtship displays with clattering beaks and high aerial showing off.  Later in the year, the liquid mournful cries of adults as they beckon to their chicks across a valley define the upland summer for me.

Overall, the UK breeding population of curlews is in some trouble, falling by nearly a half in 15 years.  In the Peak District it is a game of two halves.  In the higher moorlands, surveys show the population of about 500 pairs to be fairly stable. 

But on the meadows and pastures of the Dove, Manifold valleys and the farmland valleys on the edge of our moors the bird is in serious trouble.  Our South West Peak District population has crashed since 1985 by 75% with just around 100 pairs recorded in 2009.

We think that ever-tidier fields and predation by foxes and badgers is likely to be the reason for the decline.  The secret for curlew conservation is working with farmers to improve the habitat for these birds and increase their chances of breeding success. 

We know that managing rushes, getting the right grazing levels, providing wet feeding areas and reducing predation on nests can all help these birds, but we need to help landowners find the means of doing this over large enough areas to make a real difference.

And for the future? As we work out how best to keep the Peak District landscape full of wildlife and places of work for farmers, I hope that there will continue to be a place in our upland valleys for the cry of this most magnificent of our birds.

An earlier version of this article appeared in The Derbyshire Magazine. 

Posted on: March 19th, 2015