Through throats where many rivers meet, the Curlews cry; Under the Conceiving moon, on the high chalk hill
– Dylan Thomas
When Dylan Thomas penned the above lines in his poem ‘In the Giant’s White Thigh’ in the 1950’s, hearing the curlews cry was considerably more likely than it is today. Back then, not so very long ago, curlew (Numenius sp.) numbers in Wales, and further afield, were significantly higher than they are now. In Wales, the statistics now are particularly worrying, and their population has declined by around 81% since 1993. The curlew has a long history of capturing the hearts of poets, musicians and many others besides. Undoubtedly, this is due in part to their cry which oscillates between a lingering curlee-curlee, and a bubbling yap; a mystical piping that echoes hauntingly on the tidal mudflats where curlews spend their winters. Their distinctive sound is married with an unmistakable large curved bill, and striking mottled brown and buff feathers.
At 50-60cm long and with a wingspan of 80-100cm, curlews are Britain’s largest wading bird. In spring and summer they leave their coastal wintering grounds and migrate to upland areas, such as heather moorland, wetlands and rough pasture, to breed. In recent years, their breeding grounds are being lost to development and poor land management. A mixed mosaic of habitats on a large scale is vital to the curlew’s success, so they can feed, nest, breed and be protected by the different types of vegetation on offer in such a landscape. They feed on pasture, using their long slender bills to winkle out worms and other invertebrates, and nest in areas with longer grasses that afford them and their young protection. Predation by foxes is also a major factor in their decline, and whilst large groups may club together and ward off predators, in dwindling, smaller populations, this defence is lost to them.
Their rapid decline and loss of habitat saw the curlew placed on the Red List of Threatened Species in 2015. Its worrying downward slide has seen it gain much press attention in recent years, and in January 2018 Natural Resources Wales and conservation groups held a conference to discuss how to save this charismatic bird. Naturalist Iolo Williams and the RSPB Cymru’s senior conservation officer Dave Smith both spoke of the dire threat facing curlews in Wales. Mr Smith recognised landowners and farmers will be crucial in halting this decline:
“We need to work together to develop and implement practical measures enabling farmers and landowners to provide habitat for wildlife like curlew alongside profitable operations.”
The threat facing curlews is a joyless reversal in fortune for a bird that was once associated with death and as a gloomy omen to sailors of stormy seas. Despite their associations with doom, Welsh abbot St Beuno blessed curlews after one allegedly rescued his prayer book after he dropped it in water. He was so grateful to get it back that he ensured curlews will always be protected – which is the mystical explanation for why their nests are so hard to find!
The UK population of curlews makes up about a third of the world’s population, which is also in decline, and so their plight in Britain is grave, immediate, and of global significance. The plaintive song of the curlew denotes wildness, mystery and now, sadly, tragedy. It is not too late to save the curlew, and doing so save this rich and vital part of our natural and cultural heritage.