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Curlew being tagged Photographer: Rich Bunce Walking Photographer

Partnership to help protect Curlew in the Yorkshire Dales

For the latest updates on where our Curlews are, click here.

About the project

The meadows, moorland and moorland fringe habitats within the Yorkshire Dales National Park are home to nationally important numbers of breeding wader species. A number of these species are undergoing significant population declines in both the UK and elsewhere in Europe. The Curlew (Numenius arquata) is one of these species under threat and is now listed as globally near-threatened. As the UK holds roughly a third of the European breeding population, upland areas such as the Yorkshire Dales are becoming increasingly important for this enigmatic species. The Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority (YDNPA) is working with several key stakeholders to develop initiatives that will help to protect breeding waders in the National Park and elsewhere in the Northern Upland Chain Local Nature Partnership area.

In the summer of 2017, an innovative pilot project which trialled methods for involving gamekeepers and farmers in monitoring breeding waders was undertaken in Wensleydale. The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), the YDNPA and Bolton Castle Estate staff worked together on the project which involved wader nests being monitored with temperature data loggers and trail cameras to monitor nesting success. Gamekeepers and farmers also carried out wader surveys using methods designed to fit around their work schedules.

The YDNPA has also been working with BTO to undertake a review of existing data and to assess different monitoring options for assessing the status of breeding wader populations in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Read the report about this project to look at existing data and monitoring options here.

The monitoring Breeding Waders in Wensleydale: trialling surveys carried out by farmers and gamekeepers report can be read here.

Here we are showing maps which show the migratory movements of 17 Curlew that farmers, Bolton Estate gamekeepers, the YDNPA, and BTO scientists helped catch and fit with GPS tags in the spring of 2023, as well as further information about the work on Curlew in the Yorkshire Dales funded by the Yorkshire Dales National Park Farming in Protected Landscapes (FiPL) and Natural England Species Recovery Programme projects.

Curlew GPS tracking – where are they now?

See the updates and maps below which show the latest movements of the 17 Curlew we fitted with GPS tags in the spring of 2023. The tags should stay on for roughly 2 years, so we can view movements within the breeding and non-breeding seasons. Excitingly, this will demonstrate the range of locations where Curlew that breed in the Dales spend the autumn and winter! Please note that a regularly updated interactive map is coming soon.

To learn about the names of our Curlew, click here.

April 2024

With the breeding season now beginning we can provide an update on our remaining GPS-tagged birds. There had been no signal from ‘Carrot’ (named by the farmer’s daughter) for a while but perhaps as a result of the longer days, the battery has charged enough to ‘report in’ again and we now know that he didn’t leave Yorkshire during the winter, but just moved slightly further away from his preferred breeding site in West Witton. BTO staff are now back undertaking fieldwork in the YDNP and have managed to find three more birds, identified by their colour rings, that have lost their tags. These are ‘Green Orange’ that went to Ireland, north of Dublin; ‘White Lime’ that went to Cumbria (near Barrow) and Xmas who went to the Dee Estuary. Whilst it is frustrating from a research perspective that the tags have been lost, the harnesses are designed to fall off if there is any slight damage to the loops that hold them in place so this is not entirely unexpected. The most important thing is the birds are still alive and well, and even paired up in a couple of cases! It is hoped that our last remaining bird will also be re-located in the coming weeks as fieldworkers look out for the unique colour ring combination that will identify the bird.    

So, 16 of the 17 tagged birds have returned from their various different wintering areas, some relatively local and some much further away, and are now safely back in their breeding territories in the YDNP.  The GPS tags will continue to transmit and the other birds can be tracked by their colour rings, helping to build up a clearer picture of how the birds utilise the landscape during the breeding season. 

That’s it for a while now, we hope to be able to provide further updates later in the year when the birds start moving to their wintering territories again, but in the meantime let’s wish them all the best of luck for a successful breeding season!

Thanks to the BTO for providing these fascinating updates on where our Curlews have been since they left their breeding territories last year.

March 2024

Wed 20 March:

Our latest update from the British Trust for Ornithology shows that, after a quick stop-over on the Solway Firth, ‘Orange Lime’ was back in Wensleydale by the middle of the month.

Image Credit: Google (for the map base), Ornitela and British Trust for Ornithology. 

This is not to be confused with ‘Lime Orange’, who has only travelled a short distance to return to the Dales after spending the winter just outside of the Park boundary.

We now have 12 of the tagged birds back on their breeding territories in the Yorkshire Dales!

Thurs 7 March:

That’s a relief! ‘Orange Lime’ certainly didn’t hang around and has now made the short sea crossing back to the mainland, has moved through Dumfries and Galloway and is currently in the Solway Firth.  Not too far to go now!

Image Credit: Google (for the map base), Ornitela and British Trust for Ornithology. 

Wed 6 March:

The number of Curlew back in the Dales is increasing day by day! Our latest update from the British Trust for Ornithology shows that ten of the 17 tagged birds are now back on their breeding grounds, with another hopefully on their way. This includes eight birds that wintered away from the Dales and a further two that wintered locally. 

‘Carlos’ has returned after wintering in south-east Ireland as shown below:

Image Credit: Google (for the map base), Ornitela and British Trust for Ornithology. 

‘Cote’ didn’t head quite as far to the west, wintering on the Lancashire coast, and is now back on the breeding grounds as can be seen below.   

Image Credit: Google (for the map base), Ornitela and British Trust for Ornithology. 

‘Orange White’ also found the Lancashire coat to its liking but seems to have returned by heading north to the Sedbergh area before returning west back to last year’s Wensleydale breeding grounds as shown below:   

Image Credit: Google (for the map base), Ornitela and British Trust for Ornithology. 

‘Orange Lime’ (see below) is taking a slightly more leisurely return and is in Northern Ireland, presumably waiting for the right weather conditions to cross the Irish sea. Where will it head on its way back? 

Image Credit: Google (for the map base), Ornitela and British Trust for Ornithology. 

Fri 1 March:

A bit of cold and snowy weather has not been enough to hold our Curlew back from returning to their breeding grounds! 

‘Colin’ spent his winter on the Moy Estuary in County Mayo, Ireland, but is now back in the Yorkshire Dales.

Image Credit: Google (for the map base), Ornitela and British Trust for Ornithology. 

‘Bee’ also headed to Ireland for the winter, this time to the south-eastern coast in County Wexford. After having a pit-stop on the Dyfi Estuary in West Wales, he has also now returned home.

Image Credit: Google (for the map base), Ornitela and British Trust for Ornithology.

Not everyone has travelled so far; ‘Hunter’ and ‘Alderman’ both wintered locally in northern England but have waited until now to return to the Yorkshire Dales.

February 2024

Tues 20 February:

Things move quickly in Spring and we now have another bird – ‘Lime Noir’ – who also wintered on the Mersey Estuary but has headed straight back to the Dales. 

Image Credit: Google (for the map base), Ornitela and British Trust for Ornithology

With some colder weather forecast over the coming few days, will this hold some of our other birds back? Or will they still look to start heading home? We hope to find out soon.

Mon 19 February:  

The data sent from the GPS tags has given us a fascinating insight into where our local birds go when they leave their nesting territories.  We have seen that out of the 17 tagged birds from last spring four chose to stay in Yorkshire close to their breeding locations, three went to the Dee Estuary, two went to Lancashire on Morecambe bay, one went to Lincolnshire on the Wash, one went to the south Cumbrian coast and six went to various different coastlines around Ireland. 

It’s likely that the recent warm weather has encouraged some of our Curlews to leave their wintering areas and head back to the Yorkshire Dales National Park. A recent update from the BTO shows us that two of the adult birds GPS-tagged on breeding territories in the Dales in 2023 have returned. 

‘Anderson Jack’ spent the winter on the Dee Estuary before heading home as shown below.

Image Credit: Google (for the map base), Ornitela and British Trust for Ornithology. 

‘Green Lime’ was the only one of the tagged birds that headed east, rather than west, and has wintered on the Wash.  Despite spending the winter months on the opposite side of the country to “Anderson Jack”, both have moved back up the Dales at a very similar time.   

Image Credit: Google (for the map base), Ornitela and British Trust for Ornithology

November 2023

The map below shows the movements of the 17 Curlew fitted with GPS tags as of November 2023.

Credit for mapping: ESRI World Imagery

Why do Curlew need our help?

The UK and the Yorkshire Dales are important for Curlew. The Curlew is a species of global conservation concern, and the UK is thought to be home to roughly a third of the European breeding population, with a similar proportion spending the non-breeding season in the UK. Most wintering Curlew is distributed along the UK’s extensive coastline, but the Yorkshire Dales is one of a small number of inland breeding areas that also support Curlew through the autumn and winter. Farm and moorland management practices in the Yorkshire Dales, including predator control and relatively low-intensity farming, have allowed breeding Curlew to maintain higher breeding success here than in most other English landscapes.

The BTO Wader Project Officer, Paul Noyes says “It is clear from speaking to folk who are on the ground day-in-day-out, whether these are farmers, gamekeepers, locals, or ‘incomers’, the vast majority regard ‘their Curlew’ as an essential part of the landscape they love and protect. Many things these people do for Curlew, like looking out for nests and chicks when it comes to cutting grass, seem extraordinary to outsiders but are done almost unconsciously, as part of an unspoken duty of care. However, it’s essential we don’t take what has been working for waders in the Yorkshire Dales for granted: it is threatened by change”.

Curlew populations have declined nationally. National monitoring schemes and studies have highlighted drastic declines in the UK’s breeding Curlew population, with the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) estimating an overall -48% decrease from 1995-2020 (as per the graph below). Surveys of lowland wet grassland populations recorded a similarly large -39% decrease 1982-2002, and 50% of 12 upland study areas across Britain (including North Yorkshire) showed significant breeding Curlew population declines between 1980-2002, with only one area (South Pennines) experiencing a significant increase. You can explore other changes in UK Curlew populations yourself, using the BTO’s Trends Explorer webpage.

Graph showing the decline of Curlew

The graph above explained:

Curlew population abundance (as measured by Breeding Bird Survey observations) 1995-2022. The X-axis is years from 1995 to 2022, and the Y-axis is expressed as an ‘index’ of Curlew abundance, set to 100 in the penultimate year. An easy way to interpret this is to say that for every 100 birds present now, the trend line shows how many were present in the previous year. The shaded area shows uncertainty around the trend line (based on 85% confidence limits) and values for individual years are shown as dots.

Changes in land management have driven national declines. European and UK government incentives, technological advancement, and consumer demand have transformed farming over the last century. Societal demands for low-cost food and milk have driven farmers towards ever-increasing levels of intensification, reducing the amount of non-intensive grassland available for Curlew, as well as the time available for breeding Curlew to lay and incubate eggs and then raise their chicks. We have also more than doubled our forest cover in the UK over the last century, with commercial interests, biodiversity conservation, and climate change mitigation all contributing to pressures for continued forest expansion. These changes to our landscape also seem to have favoured populations of generalist predators like fox and Carrion Crow that are predators of Curlew eggs and chicks (at a time when predator control regimes have also shifted radically). Whilst the exact nature of the complex interplay between farming, forestry, and predators is not well understood, it appears that a national shift towards intensive agricultural monocultures interspersed with greater tree cover has benefitted generalist predators, to the detriment of Curlew and other ground-nesting birds.

What are we doing to help?

Participating farms and farmers, the Bolton Estate, the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), and the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority are working on a project funded by the Yorkshire Dales National Park’s ‘Farming in Protected Landscapes’ programme and the Natural England (NE) and Curlew Recovery Partnership (CRP) ‘Species Recovery Programme’. We began this project in April 2022 to develop novel ways in which farmers can contribute towards Curlew monitoring and conservation, and help shape advice for farmers in the Dales and the design and delivery of new agri-environment schemes (AES). To achieve this, project partners:

  1. Have caught and GPS-tracked 17 adult Curlew to better understand habitat use and breeding success on farmland in the Dales and similar landscapes.
  2. Are testing two novel farmer-focussed wader monitoring methods to better measure the impact of Curlew threats and conservation interventions (especially AES).
  3. Are intensively studying Curlew breeding pairs and nests at farm study sites in the Yorkshire Dales National Park to better understand breeding success, trial possible solutions, and compare with the novel farmer-focussed methods.
  4. Are providing farmers opportunities to help shape and co-develop ideas for future Curlew agri-environmental scheme options in the Dales and similar landscapes, to ensure these are co-developed by farmers, for farmers.

1. GPS-tracking Curlew

Why? GPS-tracking Curlew means we can investigate every stage of a pair’s breeding cycle in detail, from arrival on breeding grounds, nest-site selection, and incubation, to chick-rearing. This will inform our understanding of the importance of different habitats for Curlew and allow us to better design agri-environmental schemes to benefit Curlew in these landscapes.

How did we catch them? Bolton Estate gamekeepers and participating farmers across Wensleydale directed BTO scientists towards their known Curlew breeding territories. The BTO scientists then used a remote-controlled clap net to catch breeding adults on their territories, attracting them into the catching areas with life-like Curlew decoys and audio playback of Curlew song. Breeding males (and some females!) confronted with these apparent interlopers typically approached the decoys and started displaying towards them. When they were in the right position the net was closed, safely trapping them. We caught 17 birds on the Bolton Estate and participating farms in the Yorkshire Dales using this method. All of these went on to breed and subsequently migrate in a manner that suggested their behaviour was not greatly impacted by the tagging process.

The GPS tags are fitted with a temporary ‘leg-loop’ harness, which acts like a mini backpack with the equivalent of shoulder straps secured around the birds’ legs and will automatically fall off the bird within a few years at most. The specifications of the GPS tag and harness are reviewed and approved by a BTO Special Methods Technical Panel, whose aim is to ensure that devices fitted to birds will not impact them seriously. When fitted, each GPS tag records the precise location of the bird carrying it several times per day and sends these locations to us via the mobile phone network. Many tagged birds were also monitored visually by BTO scientists, to check that their behaviour appeared to be normal and to allow location data from the GPS to be ground-truthed.

2. Farmer wader monitoring

Why? Historically UK governments have not effectively measured the impact of the billions of pounds spent on agri-environmental schemes (AES) each year. This means that we cannot confidently say whether this money is being spent well, nor proactively adapt AES measures to make them more effective.

For Curlew and other waders, though national schemes have demonstrated the broader reasons for declines, and various studies have examined the influence of management at one or more study sites, there is considerable opportunity to learn much more from AES and other conservation management, enabling us to better manage land for Curlew.

However, relying on professional ornithologists to collect information from farms about outcomes from AES management is a costly approach. Volunteer bird surveyors can collect high-quality information, but in remote upland landscapes volunteers with bird surveying skills are in short supply. Farmers and gamekeepers have an excellent understanding of the landscapes they work in and are well-motivated to improve the effectiveness of their management for wader conservation. For several years, BTO and YDNPA have been working with farmers and gamekeepers to develop methods suitable for them to collect valuable information on wader presence, abundance and breeding success.

Which methods have we tested? We asked farmers to keep a record of the waders they see and hear on their farm each week using the Wader Calendar on the BTO website . We also asked them to deploy ‘AudioMoth’ bioacoustic recorders on their farm, to passively record wader calls on their farms. This project will evaluate the effectiveness of these methods for monitoring breeding waders, and identify ways in which they could be improved.

3. Curlew population and nest monitoring

Why? We need to monitor Curlew pairs and nests to better understand their nest-site selection and breeding success on farms managed in different ways, to improve the outcomes of conservation (and AES) interventions in the Dales and other upland landscapes.

Which methods have we used? Local volunteers have put many hours of effort into undertaking survey visits to participating farms, and farmers, gamekeepers, and BTO scientists have found and monitored nests to hatching.

4. Farmer liaison

Why? If they are to be widely implemented, it is critical that Curlew AES options are co-developed by farmers, for farmers. The views of the farming community that form the core of our partnership project are central to its success. If we can determine what Curlew pairs need to successfully fledge chicks, land managers are best placed to determine whether and how this can be delivered in a manner that is cost-effective and compatible with other land-use objectives.

Which methods have we used? Farmers have hosted BTO and YDNPA staff and volunteers and liaised with them on the ground. Farmers and staff from BTO and YDNPA continue to discuss the monitoring methods they are trialling, as well as other potential management solutions for Curlew at workshops run at the Dales Countryside Museum. We have also kept in touch with farmers through the Curlew nesting season using a WhatsApp group.

Photographs courtesy of the Dalesman Magazine. Photographer: Rich Bunce Walking Photographer

How you can help – keep a look-out for colour-ringed Curlew

In addition to the birds that have been fitted with GPS tags there are a number of other colour-ringing projects looking to help track the movements of Curlews.  Fully trained and licenced bird ringers have been catching Curlews and fitting a unique combination of colour rings onto their legs, to help with research.  These do not harm the bird at all but do allow researchers to identify individual birds and track their movements. We are asking any birdwatchers to look carefully in case any Curlews they see have these colour rings.  If you do see one, please make a careful note of the coloured rings and their position on each leg.  Please also record the date and location, including an accurate grid reference and send the details to research.sightings@bto.org

Curlew being let go after tagging
Colour-ringed Curlew being let go after tagging – Credit: Rich Bunce Walking Photographer

How we chose the names of our Curlews

The landowner, manager, or local farmer was invited to provide a name for the Curlews. Not all the local stakeholders did, but it was the case for the following birds:

  • Alderman
  • Cote
  • Hunters
  • Colin
  • Carrot
  • Anderson Jack

The names had some either meaningful significance to the relevant stakeholder (e.g. after a person or the place where they were tagged), or were names nominated by their children!

The BTO ecologists gave some of the other names as a fun shorthand, which simply relates to the colours in the individual-identification bit of the colour combination. This was the case for the following birds:

  • Bee (NY = black, yellow – bumblebee)
  • Xmas (RG = red, green)
  • Carlos (RY = red, yellow – Spanish flag)

Others are simply being referred to as their individual colour combinations, such as:

  • Green Lime
  • Orange Lime
  • Lime Orange
  • Lime Noir
  • Orange White
  • Green Orange
  • White Lime

Resources

[1] Birdlife International (2004) Birds in Europe: population estimates, trends and conservation status. Cambridge, UK: BirdLife International. (BirdLife Conservation Series No. 12).

[2]. Franks, S.E., Douglas, D.J.T., Gillings, S., and Pearce-Higgins, J.W. (2017) Environmental correlates of breeding abundance and population change of Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata in Britain. Bird Study 64(3): 393-409.

[3] Calladine, J., Border, J., O’Connell, P., and Wilson, M. (2022). Modelling important areas for breeding waders as a tool to target conservation and minimise conflicts with land use change. Journal for Nature Conservation 70: 126-127.

[4] Wilson, A.M., Ausden, M. & Milsom, T.P. (2004) Changes in breeding wader populations on lowland wet grasslands in England and Wales: causes and potential solutions. Ibis 146: 32–40.

[5] Wilson, A.M., Vickery, J.A., Brown, A., Langston, R.H.W., Smallshire, D., Wotton, S. & Vanhinsbergh, D. (2005) Changes in the numbers of breeding waders on lowland wet grasslands in England and Wales between 1982 and 2002. Bird Study 52: 55–69. doi: 10.1080/00063650509461374

[6] Sim, I.M.W., Gregory, R.D., Hancock, M.H. & Brown, A.F. (2005) Recent changes in the abundance of British upland breeding birds. Bird Study 52: 261–275.

[7] https://www.forestresearch.gov.uk/tools-and-resources/statistics/forestry-statistics/forestry-statistics-2018/woodland-areas-and-planting/woodland-area-2/area-of-woodland-changes-over-time/

[8] https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm5802/cmselect/cmenvfru/356/report.html