A BIRD that used to embody the spirit of the North’s uplands has been placed on the danger list.
The curlew is the symbol of Northumberland National Park and its evocative “bubbling” call is familiar to walkers and countryside people.
But yesterday the curlew was placed on the Red List by BirdLife International because of the steep decline in its numbers.
Along with the newly-included Dartford warbler, the curlew is now rated as Near Threatened – one step below species facing global extinction.
There are around 100,000 breeding pairs of curlew left in the UK, which has a third of the European population. Around 10% of the breeding population is in Northumberland, making the county a key location for the species.
There are thought to be around 600 breeding pairs in Northumberland National Park. But the North-East has seen a dive in curlew numbers of 29% in the last 12 years, not far behind the UK slump of 37%.
Dr David Noble , head of the census unit at the British Trust for Ornithology, said: “The bird has already disappeared from lowland areas and now there seems to be something happening in the uplands.” Possible factors for the ground-nesting bird could include habitat loss from stock grazing levels, drainage of moorland, use of agricultural machinery, increasing forestry, development pressure and pollution of river estuaries where the birds feed in winter and the effects of climate change.
Northumberland National Park Authority has a programme of conserving the heather moorland and Border Mires – or peat marshes – which are the most extensive in Europe, and of encouraging pro-conservation farming and moorland management.
Park ecologist Gill Thompson said: “It could be that warmer winters are bringing the birds back to nesting sites too early. If this happens, nesting birds can be disturbed by controlled heather burning, or perish from too much rain. Or there could be factors related to their wintering grounds along the coast.”
David Hirst, regional spokesman for the RSPB, said: “There is nothing more evocative of a day out in the North East than hearing the call of curlews echoing across the hills or estuaries of the region. Safeguarding these symbolic birds of the north will require a concerted effort involving farmers, conservationists and the owners and managers of upland moors working closely together.
“The RSPB is already working with other organisations and land managers to provide advice that will benefit curlews, but there is still more that we can all do to help keep a place in the hills for these special birds.”
Dr David Gibbons, the RSPB’s chief scientist, said: “Since 1600 only two species of European bird – the great auk and the Canarian black oystercatcher – have become globally extinct. But the inclusion of widespread and familiar species like the curlew and the Dartford warbler to the list of birds facing trouble is deeply concerning and a warning that we will lose more species without urgent action.”
Yesterday’s additions swell the numbers of nesting Near Threatened birds in the UK to five – joining the red kite which has been the subject of a reintroduction project in the North East, the corncrake and black-tailed godwit.
BETWEEN 1875 and 1900 the curlew was considered to be abundant in Northumberland.
In 1912 the naturalist George Bolam wrote: "A moor without a curlew is like a night without a moon, and he who has not eyes for the one and an ear for the other is a mere body without a soul."
Northumberland National Park is a place of upland pastures, heather moorland and deep, wet peat mires – making it an ideal habitat for the curlew that likes to nest in open moorland with patches of rushy pasture for chicks to roam and wetland nearby for feeding.
The curlew arrives at its breeding haunts in the National Park – the moors running from Hadrian’s Wall to the Cheviot Hills – in March, and begins to return in late June to its winter feeding grounds on the Solway Firth and in the river estuaries of the North East coast.
Curlews have a distinctive wide wingspan and curved bill.