Curlew numbers on the rise — thanks to seven years of a conservation programme

It had been feared that the bird was headed for extinction in Ireland but latest figures show that a major conservation effort has had some success
Curlew numbers on the rise — thanks to seven years of a conservation programme

Curlew (Numenius arquata): 42 chicks reached fledging stage in 2023 — up from 19 in 2022

The highest number of young curlew have fledged into the wild since 2017 when the Curlew Conservation Programme began, in a remarkable reversal of fortunes for one of Ireland's most endangered bird species. 

It was estimated in 2016 that the curlew had just 10 years left until extinction in Ireland, but CCP efforts appear to have, for now, helped stave off this extinction.

The CCP is a partnership between the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

The annual CCP report documents 42 chicks reaching fledging stage in 2023 — up from 19 in 2022. This represents an increase of 221% in the number of chicks fledged. A total of 38 breeding pairs were confirmed breeding in the nine geographical areas where the programme operated around the country, with another 10 pairs considered ‘possible’ breeders. Nationally, there are just 100 breeding pairs remaining in Ireland.

A five-day old Curlew chick
A five-day old Curlew chick

This encouraging increase indicates that conservation efforts within the CCP areas such as Stacks Mountains (Kerry), Lough Corrib North (Galway). Lough-Ree (Roscommon Westmeath), North Roscommon/Mayo, Mid-Leitrim, North Monaghan, Donegal, Sliabh Aughties (Clare Galway), Laois/Kildare, are having a positive impact on our curlew population.

Responding to the report findings, Minister for Nature, Heritage and Electoral Reform Malcolm Noonan said: “The work pioneered by the Curlew Conservation Programme over the past seven years shows that there are practical conservation efforts that we can take to stave off extinction of the curlew. It also shows that we need to ramp these efforts up significantly, while also addressing wider land use changes. We will be announcing detailed plans to do just this in the very near future, building on the solid foundations that the Curlew Conservation Programme has provided."

The Minister added that "a key success of the programme has been the engagement with farmers, landowners and local communities, who are central to all of our conservation efforts."

Curlew are large native wading birds, with long legs and a long down-curved bill. They are ground-nesting birds so their nests and eggs are vulnerable to predators, infield operations and disturbance. This is compounded by degradation and loss of habitat in landscapes.

The Curlew Conservation Programme was established in response to a national survey, which identified the scale of the loss and action required to save the curlew from extinction. Here in Ireland, the Curlew population has declined by 98% since the late 1980s/early 1990s. The conservation efforts taken over the past seven years included everything from surveys to nest protection, landowner and community engagement, awareness raising, research and the restoration and maintenance of habitats.

This year's increase in chicks fledging has been attributed to the more widespread use of 'headstarting' — collecting curlew eggs from wild birds’ nests and incubating them in a controlled environment until they hatch. The chicks are reared in pens until they are ready for release back into the wild. While this may provide a valuable boost to the number of birds being fledged, it does not address the underlying issue of habitat loss and degradation and long-term viability of the population.

Community engagement has been an essential element of the programme with local members of the community involved in Curlew Action Teams. Teams work closely with the farming community, landowners and other stakeholders on awareness-raising activities and practical supports for farmers. Nest protection fencing was effective in providing protection for eggs from ground predators resulting in a high hatching rate, and may also provide protection for other vulnerable birds.

Dr Barry O’Donoghue, of the National Parks and Wildlife Service who led the programme said: “This has been and remains one of the greatest conservation challenges of our time. What gives so much heart and hope, is the support that is out there among Irish people for the curlew. We started at a time when curlew had not even been studied properly. We now know confidently, where curlew are across the country and what the issues facing them are and how these issues can to be addressed. While the headline figures from the CCP areas may provide hope for the future, we ultimately need to restore the environment upon which these birds rely, and this includes wider issues even beyond immediate ecological considerations."

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