Dozens of hand-reared Eurasian Curlews have been released onto reserves in Gloucestershire as part of a trial to conserve the species in lowland England.

It is hoped that the birds will join endangered wild populations and return to the Severn Vale in future years, boosting the numbers of breeding pairs in the area.

Eurasian Curlew, recently referred to as the "panda of UK conservation" by ministers, has declined rapidly across many parts of the UK and could be lost forever in some areas in as little as 15 years in if nothing is done, forcing experts at the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) to intervene.

The eggs were rescued from nests on military airbases in Norfolk, where they would have been destroyed, under licence, to protect air safety. They were then transported to Slimbridge WWT, where they were raised. 

Curlew chicks are able to feed themselves from the moment they hatch. However they will freeze when they're in danger, which makes them particularly vulnerable to farm machinery and predation.

Even in healthy populations, only a small proportion of chicks will survive to fledge. Protecting them during this vulnerable stage and releasing them into the wild once they can take flight boosts the number of fledglings produced by a population – a technique known as headstarting, which has been used successfully in the Russian Far East to bolster Spoon-billed Sandpiper populations and, more recently, on the fens of Cambridgeshire and Norfolk to help Black-tailed Godwits.

Headstarting is just one element of the project which also involves working with farmers to protect nests and chicks by using fencing and changing hay cutting dates.

Over the past few decades, curlews have been struggling to raise their young in the British countryside. Older birds are dying off and there aren't enough young surviving to maintain a stable population. The observed decline of Eurasian Curlew in the lowlands is likely linked to long-term changes to countryside management. Because they often nest in silage fields, their eggs and chicks are prone to being destroyed by farm equipment. The eggs and chicks also suffer extremely high rates of predation, particularly from foxes and crows, which are more widespread in Britain than elsewhere across Europe. Eurasian Curlew is now classed as a Priority Species in the UK and was added to the Red List in 2015.

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