Curlew Journeys and Grafta winners!

January 2023

Mike Pollard - Curlew Recovery Project Lead

Oxfordshire is a key lowland county for breeding Curlews - a top conservation priority bird nationally and the focus for many organisations across the county. Wild Oxfordshire co-ordinates Oxfordshire’s Curlew Recovery Project - supporting volunteers, farmers and conservationists working together to deliver much needed action and help our largest wading bird to recover and flourish.

2022 was another tough year for Curlews in the southern half of England – an initial estimate is that about 500 pairs are thought to have raised about a hundred chicks to the flying stage. They need to raise 250, or half a chick per pair, to maintain their numbers.

Here in Oxfordshire, it was similar picture, with just over fifty pairs known to have fledged just eight youngsters. Many chicks are known to have been lost to predation, likely to be mostly by Foxes and avian predators. Although this was disappointing outcome, there were some positive results which are giving us pointers for the future.

We are finding that by protecting nests with temporary electric fencing we can achieve very high hatching success, currently averaging around 80% across all sites. In 2022, twenty nests were fenced in Oxfordshire, including seven along the Thames, where a remarkable 100% hatching success was achieved by Anne Cotton’s brilliant team of Natural England Volunteers.

Anne Cotton, Natural England, with Grafta Award winners Simon Cousins and Noah Walker, completing a temporary electric fence around an Oxfordshire Curlew nest. ©Mike Pollard

At least six chicks are known to have fledged from these protected nests, a big boost for the Curlew population in that area. Such was the success of Anne’s team that as well as fencing seven nests they found another two that were sadly predated before they could be fenced. The awesome skill and dedication of the team was recognised recently when they won Natural England’s coveted ‘Grafta’ Award this year. Congratulations!

Another highlight was the record number of Curlews found by RSPB fieldworkers across Otmoor this year – 21 pairs, probably reflecting three relatively good breeding seasons from 2019 to 2021, as well as the availability of extensive high-quality habitat. This is a really good indication that when the conditions are right Curlews can maintain their population and start to recover.

Adult Curlews are known to be pretty faithful to their breeding territories, returning year after year to the same location. Most young Curlews also tend to return to the general area where they were raised. But ringing and tracking studies are showing that some Curlews do move around much more than we might imagine.

Encouragingly, we are starting to recruit young adults that have been ‘head-started’ by WWT at Slimbridge in Gloucestershire. Headstarting involves taking eggs from wild pairs, incubating the eggs, and rearing the young in aviaries, until they're old enough to fly, at which point they are released into the wild. Most head-started Curlews are expected to return to the release areas, but some are spreading their wings much further and helping to bolster other populations.

This year, WWT caught and tagged a male Curlew ‘Malcolm’ whilst he was holding a territory at Minsterworth Ham in Gloucestershire (home to several pairs of Curlew). However, fieldworkers never saw him with a mate and on 10th May he left the Severn & Avon Vale and flew to Oxfordshire, settling here for just over a month. On 19th June he passed through the Severn Estuary before heading off to Devon and arrived on the River Taw estuary on 20th June and was in the area until 5th August, when his tag stopped transmitting. Full story here!

We are also starting to gather evidence of the movements of young Curlews once they leave Oxfordshire. A very small number of chicks have been fitted with uniquely labelled yellow leg flags and three of these have been re-sighted. One Otmoor fledgling flew all the way to County Kerry in southwest Ireland just weeks after fledging and was seen again, briefly, closer to home at Upton Warren in Worcestershire in March this year. Another Otmoor fledgling from 2021 was seen in Brittany in May, and one of this year’s Thames fledglings was spotted at the Seven Estuary in July.

Our plans for 2023 include finding and fencing more nests and working with groups of farmers and conservation managers to develop our collective efforts to continue improving the quality of Curlew habitat in Oxfordshire and reducing the impacts of predation.

The Oxfordshire Curlew Recovery Project is currently funded by Natural England as part of their species recovery programme.

Contact Mike for further information including volunteering opportunities

More on Curlews here

An Oxfordshire Curlew chick about to be fitted with a leg flag. ©Mike Pollard

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