The high, quivering call of the curlew has been a familiar sound to many a dog-walker, hiker, and fisherman, for centuries, who, if they knew their folklore, would scan the skies for incoming storms and pull their coats tighter about, perhaps a quickening of pace would accompany their actions. Their name is said to originate from their call, and curlew have been commemorated in stories, songs and music for generations.
They are even mentioned in a 1000-year-old poem, The Seafarer, a one-person account of an old man reminiscing of his time on the waves in his youth.
Eurasian Curlews are actually classed as members of the sandpiper family, which encompasses many other waders like snipe and godwits. Although the family name comes from their narrow and usually long pipe-like bills, the species name for curlews, Numenius, means new moon, referring to their unique slender bill, long and decurved, drooping down towards the earth.
They push this into sand and mud to extract tiny invertebrates and crustaceans for their food, and their plumage is usually somewhat dull, neutral colours which are mottled in appearance, known as cryptic plumage, helping them camouflage against their environment.
Curlews are quite large in comparison to the rest of the family, indeed they are Europe’s largest wader at around 60cm or 24 inches in length, and their bill is almost the same length as their bodies at 15cm or six inches. Both a resident and a migratory species, some spend winters in Africa and breed across a range that used to cover much of southern Europe and south Asia, with some populations heading to sub-Arctic Russia to breed.
Curlews survive on a diet of shellfish, shrimps and other creatures that live in the thick marshy muds of these habitats, probing through using their long bills whose sensitive tips can feel the animals moving around. Alas, curlew tongues are too short to reach the end of their bills and can’t tease the food inside – instead, the curlew uses the two mandibles as tweezers, plucks the morsel from the mud, and flicks back its head, tossing the tasty titbits deeper inside.
Once a common sight across the UK and Ireland, their distribution has changed considerably within the past hundred years, with numbers drastically declining within the last few decades one study by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) shows a 48% drop between 1995 and 2015.
The reasons for this are mainly attributed to a change in agricultural practices: the drainage of marshy fields, moorland, and coastal habitats for human development and the frequent cutting of grass from their breeding grounds for sileage is principally to blame. Worrying declines show this species could become extinct in Britain and Ireland in just a few years.
Saints preserve us
This species was once so abundant you could buy curlew in butchers shops in the early 1940s; but nowadays only around 60,000 Eurasian curlew breeding pairs reside in the UK, which is approximately a quarter of the global population.
In 2015, curlews were added to the Red list on the UK Conservation Status Report. In lowland southern England, where these birds could once be easily spotted walking serenely among the more diminutive and scurrying dunlin, redshank and godwits, there have only been 500 pairs counted in recent years. This is why concerted efforts have been heroically made in the past five years to help this iconic species back on its wide-toed feet and grace the land and skies once more.
In 2017, environmentalist and author Mary Colwell created World Curlew Day to highlight the dangers these birds face, having first written about them in her book Curlew Moon, an account of her 500-mile walk from the west of Ireland to the east coast of England to raise awareness about this bird. St Beuno is the patron saint of curlews, making his and their day the 21st of April.
On this day in 2022, Orkney-born musician Merlyn Driver released an album named after the local name for the night-long twilight that can be experienced on those Northern Isles, the simmerdim, during which the curlews could be around midsummer. In partnership with the RSPB and featuring multiple artists, Driver recorded this simultaneously uplifting and heart-breaking album to highlight the plight of the iconic curlew whose calls would ring out through his childhood. Concerns that these calls would be silent forever, very soon, have dominated the curlew conversation – but now there is cause for hope.
Luck of the Irish
Under the expert guidance of RSPB Northern Ireland, farmers in Glenwherry, County Antrim were encouraged to introduce more nature-friendly practices such as installing electric fences around nesting sites, (which is little more than a scrape in the ground) and monitor and maintain predator behaviour and presence. These two simple acts led to a record-breaking breeding season for the curlews there, with a total of 69 chicks fledging in 2022, beating the previous year’s total of 28 chicks in 2021.
Elsewhere 120km away in the RSPB’s Lower Lough Erne reserve in Enniskillen, 11 more chicks fledged, bringing the total to a fantastic 80 chicks. This number may not seem much to our ears, but to those in curlew conservation, this is a sure boost to breeding pairs in the long run.
More sites are now being targeted throughout Ireland and the UK, and if the results of this most recent breeding season are anything to go by, the curlew call could once more “swim towards the surface and bubble up over the brim… caught in the simmerdim” (©Merlyn Driver).