It’s a winter afternoon and the low sun is setting over the estuary. The call of a curlew drifts across the still water. This long billed wader is instantly recognisable by its long legs and distinctive down curved bill.
The haunting call of Britain’s tallest wading bird is one of the most evocative sounds of our countryside and has inspired poets and songwriters from Dylan Thomas to Benjamin Britten.
The UK’s breeding population of curlews is of national importance, being estimated to represent more than 30 percent of the west European population. Yet we’ve lost 65% of our curlews since 1970 due to predation and changing farm practices and they are now Britain’s highest conservation priority bird species.
Length: 50-60cm; Wingspan: 90cm; Weight: 770g-1kg; Average lifespan: 5 years
Eurasian curlews are mottled brown and grey, with long, bluish legs and a long, down curved bill. Females are larger than males but have the same colouring meaning it can be hard to tell them apart. In flight curlews have a white wedge on the rump.
Curlew shaking water off its back and preening its feathers
Curlew feeding with its unique down-curved bill
LISTEN TO CURLEW CALL
Curlews survive on a diet of worms, shellfish and shrimps which they find in the ground through the sensitive touch of their long curved bill. They act like a pair of tweezers or chopsticks to pincer its prey in the mud. They often toss their prey in the air before catching and swallowing, because its tongue can't reach the prey to help flick it down!
Classified in the UK as Red under the Birds of Conservation Concern 4: The Red List for Birds (2015). Priority Species under the UK Post-2010 Biodiversity Framework. Listed as Near Threatened on the global IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
UK breeding - 66,000 pairs
UK wintering - 140,000 individuals
Curlews breed in diverse habitats and from February to July you can hear their distinctive ‘cur-lee’ over moorland, heath, wet grasslands and farmland. From July onwards they head towards the coast and large estuaries, where they spend the winter.
- A group of curlews is called a curfew, a salon, or skein of curlews.
- The genus name Numenius refers to the curlew's bill, meaning 'new moon' in reference to the sickle-shaped bill.
- Eurasian curlews used to be eaten, and appeared in several recipe books. They were once so common in Cornwall they were served in pies. In fact, up until 1942, you could still buy curlews in UK butchers.
- Curlews are migratory, but are present all year in the milder climate of the British Isles and the adjacent European coasts.
- Females are larger than males but it can be hard to distinguish between them as their colouring is the same.
- The curlew has undergone a 30% population crash in the last decade due to a number of reasons including predation by generalist predators and loss of habitat for breeding and rearing young.
Where and when to see curlews
Although their numbers are declining, curlew can occur around the whole UK coastline with the largest concentrations found at Morecambe Bay, the Solway Firth, the Wash, and the Dee, Severn, Humber and Thames estuaries.
Greatest breeding numbers are found in North Wales, the Pennines, the southern uplands and the East Highlands of Scotland and the Northern Isles.
How WWT are helping
WWT is at the forefront of plans to help curlews across farmed and lowland areas of England. On World Wetlands Day in 2017, Slimbridge hosted the first Southern English Curlew Workshop. More than 100 conservationists, farmers, landowners, policymakers, scientists and birdwatchers came together to plan the best way to help the few, isolated groups of curlews still surviving in the south of England.
One of the main results of the workshop day was the establishment of the Curlew Forum. This is a small team of curlew specialists which help coordinate a variety of groups throughout southern England. So far, the group have:
- Worked closely with farmers and the wider community to trial different ways of protecting nests.
- In some places, electric fencing is being used to deter predators.
- In others, farmers are being persuaded to wait to cut their hay until curlew chicks have almost fledged. In areas where the birds nest on public ground, signs have been erected to educate people about the disturbance dogs can cause.
- 'Headstarting’ curlew chicks in places where populations are critically low and under great pressure, such as the farmland of Shropshire, on Dartmoor and in the hay meadows of Gloucestershire,