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Eggs rescued from RAF airbases as ‘pilot project’ to save endangered curlew takes flight

Posted on 30 May 2019

Under normal circumstances, the eggs from nests near military runways have to be destroyed under an individual licence to protect flight safety.

Instead, these eggs were transported to WWT Slimbridge in Gloucestershire to be hand-reared and released into the Severn Vale. It’s hoped the new curlews will help to recover the fragile population in the area.

Curlew numbers in the UK have declined by 60% over the past 30 years. While numbers are slightly healthier in the uplands of northern England and Scotland, in southern England, Wales and Ireland, only hundreds of pairs remain.

Nigel Jarrett, Head of Conservation Breeding at WWT, says:

It’s an exciting opportunity for everyone involved. On one hand, curlews at East Anglian air bases pose a potential risk to aviation but on the other hand they have the potential to help their struggling cousins in the South West.

Unfortunately time is not on our side but by babysitting these chicks until they can fly, we can help encourage a new generation of British curlews in the lowlands.

If a success, the new curlew trial could provide a major boost to the conservation of curlews in southern England and East Anglia while still minimising the risks of serious air safety incidents.

A spokesperson for MoD says:

Fast-jet airfields are carefully managed to deter large and flocking birds and reduce the risk of bird-strike, but curlews seem very keen to nest on them in East Anglia, probably due to perceived safety from predators and lack of other suitable habitats in the landscape.

The MOD and its contractors are very happy to support this ‘pilot project’ and to contribute to the conservation of this iconic species.

WWT conservationists will ‘headstart’ the curlews, by hatching the eggs in incubators, then protecting the chicks in outdoor aviaries until they are old enough to fly. They will then be released at specially selected sites. WWT has already used the technique to boost black-tailed godwit numbers in the UK and spoon-billed sandpiper numbers in Russia, and is also working on curlew with Curlew Country this year who first headstarted curlew in 2017 in Shropshire.

The Curlew decline in the lowlands seems to be caused by long-term changes in the way the countryside is managed. Because they often nest in silage fields, their eggs and chicks are prone to being destroyed by farm machinery. Even more importantly, the eggs and chicks suffer extremely high rates of predation, particularly from foxes and crows, which are more abundant in Britain than elsewhere in Europe.

Natural England’s Chair, Tony Juniper CBE said:

In many parts of England the Curlew is now very scarce and if their decline continues there is a real danger that in the future people will not be able to enjoy these wonderful birds. Releasing captive-reared Curlews to areas where they have disappeared, while at the same time helping to ensure airfield safety, is an example of the kind of positive partnership that we know is needed if we are to reverse the declining fortunes of many of our wildlife species.

In the long term, conservationists aim to restore wetland and species-rich grassland habitats and reduce the impact of climate change to enable curlews to recover to sustainable levels in the UK. They are also researching ways to reduce the impact of predators on ground-nesting birds.

The curlew is the UK’s largest wading bird and their evocative ‘curlee’ call is synonymous with the British countryside and its wild places.

Curlews are in such serious danger that they are now considered to be the biggest bird conservation priority in the UK.

Learn more about the curlew