Last year saw the highest number of young curlews fledged into the wild since the curlew conservation programme began in 2017.

Some 42 curlew chicks were fledged in 2022, up from only 19 the year previous, with the project’s team putting the increase primarily down to the rolling out of “headstarting” – the practice of incubating wild eggs and rearing chicks before releasing these chicks back into the wild.

The programme has said that while the practice does allow for more chicks to reach fledgling stage, it does not tackle the underlying issue of curlew habitat losses.

Predators, field operations and ground disturbance leave the curlew’s nest and eggs vulnerable.

The number of curlew breeding pairs across the nine areas in which the programme operates rose by 12 to hit 38, while another 10 pairs have been identified as potential breeding pairs.

There is estimated to be 100 breeding pairs still in existence nationally.

Dedicated programme

The programme is a partnership between the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) and the Department of Agriculture which was established in 2017, when it was anticipated that the species only had a decade left.

It was set up after a survey revealed that the bird’s populations had dwindled to only around 2% of what they had been as recent as the late 1980s and early 1990s.

New plans imminent

A curlew in flight. \ Janice Mulligan

Government will soon announce plans to ramp up habitat conservation measures intended to prevent the curlew’s extinction, according to Minister of State at the Department of Housing Malcolm Noonan.

Minister Noonan pointed to the programme’s engagement with farmers, landowners and local communities as being a “key success” of the conservation effort.

“Our history, culture and communities have such a deep connection with this precious species and its unique call, heard for centuries on our meadows and wetlands,” he said.

“The work pioneered by the curlew conservation programme over the past seven years shows that there are practical conservation efforts that we can take to stave off extinction of the curlew.

“It also shows that we need to ramp these efforts up significantly, while also addressing wider land use changes.”

This year saw the highest number of chicks being fledged since the programme began. This has been attributed to the more widespread use of headstarting – a practice which the CCP has implemented since 2021 and involves collecting curlew eggs from wild birds’ nests and incubating them in a controlled environment until they hatch. The chicks are reared in pens until they are ready for release back into the wild. The practice of headstarting is still in its infancy, but shows encouraging signs in supporting a greater number of chicks to reach fledgling stage. While it may provide a valuable boost to the number of birds being fledged, it does not address the underlying issue of habitat loss and degradation and long-term viability of the population.

More work needed

The NPWS’s Dr Barry O’Donoghue, who led the programme, stated that although the headline figures “provide hope for the future”, more work is needed to conserve the curlew’s habitats.

Findings which have emerged over the course of the programme leave the state better-equipped to carry out this conservation work, O’Donoghue said.

“This has been and remains one of the greatest conservation challenges of our time,” he commented.

“What gives so much heart and hope, is the support that is out there among Irish people for the curlew.

“We started at a time when curlew had not even been studied properly. We now know confidently, where curlew are across the country and what the issues facing them are and how these issues can to be addressed.”