The summer of 2023 will go down as a good year for the curlew.

The iconic bird of the Irish countryside has suffered a catastrophic collapse in numbers since 1990, with the population plummeting by 98%.

But 2023 saw a slight reversal of that downward spiral.

The annual report from the Curlew Conservation Programme (CCP) – a partnership between the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) and the Department of Agriculture – recorded 42 chicks reaching fledging stage last summer. That is up from 19 in 2022.

A total of 38 pairs were confirmed breeding in the nine geographical areas where the programme operated, with another 10 pairs considered ‘possible’ breeders.

However, Barry O’Donoghue of the NPWS won’t be breaking out the champagne just yet.

Barry O'Donoghue of the NPWS.

The Kerryman who has headed up the CCP until it ended in 2023 has no illusions about the challenge facing environmentalists and farmers interested in saving the curlew. He points out that there are just 100 breeding pairs remaining in Ireland.

“The population is by no means safe and continued and upscaled efforts will be required on a number of fronts,” O’Donoghue insists.

Indeed, the Stacks Mountains native says it is possible that Ireland’s curlew numbers may have already dipped below “what would be considered a viable population”.

“When one considers most counties now have no breeding curlew and a number have just one breeding pair, should something happen to one of the pair over winter, for example through old age or a broken leg or loss to predation or a road casualty, just one of the pair, the male or female, will return next spring and wait without their partner returning.

“This will then be the end of breeding in that locality, county or region,” he explains.

“Curlews and other breeding waders preferably nest where they have neighbours, so that they can club together to help rear their families.

“To stave off extinction will be a significant challenge and to grow the population will be significantly more difficult again,” O’Donoghue admits.

However, the NPWS man is not without hope. He says a recovery in curlew numbers is possible, should what he describes as the “fundamentals” in terms of habitat and land use “be turned back in favour of the curlew and other species that share the landscape”.

O’Donoghue singles out land use as the most important consideration which will impact the curlews’ survival or demise.

He says it “sets the scene for everything that follows, including risk of predation, risk of damage by mowing, etc”.

“This is where efforts will need to focus in the immediate-, medium- and long-term,” O’Donoghue says.

Direct engagement to save nests from loss will be required for the moment, O’Donoghue concedes.

These interventions ensure that the number of chicks reaching fledging stage increase above what might otherwise be the situation given the current environment, he says.

Calamitous decline

“The current environment is clearly against the curlew, as evidenced by the calamitous decline in the last 30 to 40 years, and that decline has not ended as the environment has not improved significantly yet,” O’Donoghue contends.

Curlew chick. \ Neal Warnock

“If we – as a country, not just conservationists – can secure fledging numbers and improve the landscape and habitat condition for curlew, let’s see where things stand in terms of numbers in 10 or 20 years’ time. Clearly, the goal is to ensure curlews are still a sight and sound then and their future is secured. And the steps that will determine that started with the Curlew Conservation Programme in 2017 and will now be taken forward by the Breeding Waders EIP from 2024.”

The Curlew Conservation Programme

The Curlew Conservation Programme (CCP) was established in 2017 to pioneer conservation efforts in Ireland for the endangered bird species.

The programme comprised a range of measures including the restoration, maintenance, enhancement and creation of habitats suitable for breeding curlew pairs.

Curlews are ground-nesting birds.

“Many new and innovative methods and approaches were employed, which have now been taken up internationally,” explains Barry O’Donoghue of the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS).

One of these practices is headstarting where curlew eggs are collected from nests. They are then incubated, hatched and reared, before being moved to a release site where they spend a few weeks getting familiar with their new environment. The birds are eventually released into the wild.

“Headstarting is a relatively new and pioneering approach for the curlew and time will tell as to how the young released fare in the wild, and whether they return to breed in future years,” O’Donoghue says.

However, by using colour rings on their legs, the CCP team now knows of one male bird that breeds in Donegal but winters in Kerry.

However, headstarting is not viewed by those involved with curlew conservation as a viable long-term solution to the bird species problems.

“It is there to buy time in the short- to medium-term; to hold on to hope of a breeding population while habitats and the landscape and environment are being rehabilitated and restored,” O’Donoghue explains.

Damaged landscape

“Headstarting is a sign of how damaged the landscape is for ground nesting birds like the curlew, that they find it almost impossible now to reliably rear their young in their own natural environment,” the NPWS man adds.

“If there is to be a future for breeding curlews, we cannot simply pump birds into the environment, which has been responsible for their decline in the first place, nor can we view rearing young in a laboratory-type establishment as a future for the birds,” he says.

The call of the curlew

The curlew is a large native wading bird, with long legs and a long down-curved bill. The call of the curlew was once synonymous with the Irish landscape and has inspired and featured in much of our literature, including song, poetry and stories.

It was once very widespread, even up to 30 years ago, but has since suffered a collapse in population, primarily due to changes in landscape and land use, with the wet, marginal land they thrived on being drained or planted for forestry.

Collaborative effort is needed to save curlew

The greatest hope for the curlew is that not one person in Ireland hopes that the bird goes extinct, O’Donoghue maintains.

However, a collaborative effort involving farmers, landowners, State agencies and conservationists will be required to save the bird.

And the nature of the curlew means these efforts must be targeted at areas with existing populations.

“Curlews are site faithful, to the point that even where they are surrounded by habitat and landscape that is stacked against them, where they will have little or no chance of rearing their young, they will still return to the same site year after year,” explains Barry O’Donoghue.

“To get curlew into a new area is nigh on impossible, and efforts will need to focus on consolidating populations where they are,” he maintains.

The NPWS has asked the public to be on the lookout for curlews with coloured rings on their legs. Louis Ó Súilleabháin

That is why the Curlew Conservation Programme (CCP), which was headed by O’Donoghue, concentrated on areas with existing populations of birds.

These areas include the Stacks Mountains in Kerry, Lough Corrib in Galway, Lough Ree in Roscommon and Westmeath, north Roscommon/Mayo, mid-Leitrim, north Monaghan, Donegal, the Sliabh Aughty mountains on the Clare-Galway border and sites in Laois and Kildare.

Where there are existing populations of curlews, O’Donoghue says landowners who are interested in helping to preserve numbers should engage with those working on agri-environmental schemes, especially the new breeding waders EIP and local NPWS.

“Actions need to be site specific and what you would do in one area might not be appropriate in another area. A key thing, of course, would be to identify where the birds are in the first place,” he explains.

O’Donoghue insists that the responsibility for protecting endangered species, such as the curlew, does not fall solely on the shoulders of conservationists.

He says the Government has a crucial role to play, as do communities, landowners and individuals.

“We will need a collaborative effort on this; we need to work together and forget about labels like ‘farmer’, ‘ecologist’, etc, when it comes to conservation,” O’Donoghue says.

Iconic bird

“How we view the land and landscape and whether we truly want to hold on to our friend the curlew, which has kept us company in the summer meadows and bogs for generations, will ultimately define the future for this iconic bird in Ireland,” he contends.

“One clear theme throughout the Curlew Conservation Programme was that we had local teams, largely from and based in the local communities where they operated.

“When people who know what can be done, work with those who can make it happen, we have seen great things happen,” O’Donoghue says.

“The greatest hope for the curlew is that not one person in Ireland wants to see the curlew go extinct here and when landowners and farmers and communities have the desire to protect something, that is very powerful,” the NPWS official maintains.