Mourn the birds lost to unchecked predators
Culling crows, ravens and foxes is unpalatable but the price of our inaction will be the loss of many beautiful species
There is a tattered exercise book in our house that records the return of a dozen or so birds every year after their winter migrations. Top of the list is the osprey, which dutifully came back this year to its familiar pine tree on the Loch of the Lowes, about ten days earlier than usual. Last week a wagtail appeared suddenly on a bush outside my window — again about ten days earlier than last year — then vanished. I trust it is just on a reconnaissance trip, and will be back.
Other birds, sadly, fail to reappear. Looking back in the book, the curlew is recorded as returning regularly to a field about half a mile away, on dates from the middle to the end of March. There is an RSPB report on our part of Perthshire recording a wide range of wildlife in the mid-1960s. At the end it says: “Curlew numbers have not been noted because they are too common to be worth recording.”
That is no longer the case. They have been in steady decline and this year their wonderful fluting call has finally gone. There may be a pair higher up the hill, but we are not meant to range too far so we cannot check. Along with the lapwing (or pee-wit) the oyster-catcher, redshank, plover and others, long of leg and beak, picking their way through open fields, river banks or moorland, the curlew have largely vanished. This is not a local issue. A mournful book called Curlew Moon, by Mary Colwell, records their decline across Britain and Ireland. The reasons she suggests include climate change, predation, modern farming methods, pesticides and herbicides, an increase in sheep and cattle numbers, more ramblers, and cross-country trails with ranging dogs. The curlew and the others are all ground-nesting birds and highly vulnerable to changes in land use.
Last week an organisation called Working for Waders issued an appeal to farmers for help in preserving areas of the rougher, wetter ground, which waders like. It wanted grazing controlled, and some areas preserved for wildlife.
That is not the whole answer. For us there has been no change in land use. There are no crops round here because we are too high up, and the ground is mainly moorland so no pesticides have ever been applied. There has been no ploughing or drainage and the sheep flock is much the same size as it ever was. There are ramblers and dogs, but it would be hard to lay the blame at their door.
What the organisation approaches with some hesitation is “predator control”. What is meant by that, bluntly, is shooting or trapping the birds and animals that threaten waders’ nests and young. Anyone who lives in the country knows that there is now a huge imbalance between predators and prey. The sound of the curlew has long since been drowned out by the harsh call of the hooded crow and raven, whose numbers have soared. The raven, a bird we have grown to fear, is protected by law.
Towards the end of her book Colwell, a conservationist to her fingertips, takes on the issue of predator control unflinchingly. She talks to gamekeepers and shepherds about the way they seek to protect sporting interests on the one hand and sheep flocks on the other. They do as much as they can to control foxes and crows — indeed organisations such as Scottish Natural Heritage encourage it. The RSPB itself does the same on the estates it owns, though it does not advertise the fact.
Colwell concludes that where there is predator control wading birds do better. It is not a conclusion she likes, but she states it as fact.
The problem for those of us who want to preserve the vulnerable species is that there is no political support for the trapping and shooting needed to protect them, and no public appetite for it either. Foxes and crows have the upper hand; ravens get away scot free. Now, with the coronavirus clampdown, even those gamekeepers who are still active have had to self-isolate. Dark days ahead for our beloved curlew.