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Photo: Curlew by Mike Brown

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Catastrophic Curlew declines uncovered

BirdWatch Ireland has carried out the first survey specifically to find breeding Curlew in Ireland – in counties Donegal and Mayo.  The results are most worrying, as Anita Donaghy reports.

This survey is part of the Halting Environmental Loss Project (HELP), a cross-border initiative in partnership with RSPB Northern Ireland and funded by the EU INTERREG IVA programme and a Master's degree study on factors affecting the Curlew's decline in Ireland.  This study, at University College Cork, is part-funded by the BirdWatch Ireland Cry of the Curlew Appeal.

The Curlew has been red-listed as a globally threatened species by the IUCN since 2007.

During the last Breeding Atlas, in 1988-1991, Donegal and Mayo still held good numbers of breeding Curlew and the Irish population as a whole was estimated at around 5,000 pairs.  This spring, over 60 sites occupied by breeding Curlews during that Atlas were revisited and, shockingly the results indicated that only six still held breeding pairs.

A total of just four pairs were recorded in Donegal and four in Mayo.  This would indicate that there are likely to be less than 200 breeding pairs left in the whole country - a 96 decline in 20 years.

One of the very few Curlew chicks found in Ireland in 2011 (Photo: Anita Donaghy)
One of the very few Curlew chicks found in Ireland in 2011
(Photo: Anita Donaghy)

The HELP project manager for BirdWatch Ireland, Dr. Anita Donaghy, says loss of habitat in the uplands is likely to be one of the main reasons for the decline.

"The marginal upland areas where Curlew breed have been widely destroyed or fragmented by a range of land-use pressures", she said.  "Afforestation, commercial peat-cutting and windfarm developments are all factors that have probably contributed to the decline.  As their habitat becomes more fragmented, Curlews also become more vulnerable to predation."

Curlews nest in damp, rushy pastures and on open moorland. Using their long, decurved bills they probe for food in soft, wet areas along ditches or shallow pools where their chicks can easily find insect food.

Adult Curlew in flight (Photo: Colum Clarke)
Adult Curlew in flight
(Photo: Colum Clarke)

Vital work to secure the future of the dwindling Curlew population in Donegal will be an aim of HELP.  Several areas have been identified where BirdWatch Ireland will work with farmers to carry out management work to maximise breeding success.

We need a full national survey of breeding Curlew now, as every remaining pair must be found and protected if we are to save the Curlew from extinction as an Irish breeding bird", Anita said.

How you can help

BirdWatch Ireland urgently needs more funds for the Curlew Appeal.  “We are very grateful to the many people who have already donated generously", said Alan Lauder, BirdWatch Ireland's chief executive.  “Our research has shown that the Curlew breeding population is in an even more perilous state than we thought.  Unfortunately the remaining funds are not adequate to take the action needed to identify the remaining pairs and put measures in place to protect them", he said.

The Cry of the Curlew Appeal remains open.  You can donate securely online or by phoning BirdWatch Ireland on 01-2819878.

The HELP project is funded by the European Regional Development Fund as part of the INTERREG IVA Project, administered locally by SEUPB.

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