A study has called for the curlew to be a conservation priority

Curlew Numenius arquata. Pic: Laurie Campbell

Curlew Numenius arquata. Pic: Laurie Campbell

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A new study has called for the curlew, Europe’s largest wading bird, to now be considered the highest conservation priority bird species in the UK.

The population has fallen by 43 per cent since the mid-1990s, and their global status is listed as ‘near threatened’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

A new report, by RSPB Scotland, assessing the status of all the UK’s 244 birds – Birds of Conservation Concern 4 – has placed the curlew on its Red List under ‘highest conservation concern’.

Birds of Conservation Concern is a report compiled by a coalition of leading conservation and monitoring organisations, reviewing the status of all birds in the UK.

Each species is assessed and placed on the Green, Amber or Red List – indicating an increasing level of conservation concern.

The Red List now contains 27 per cent of the UK’s birds, an increase from 52 species in 2009 to 67 species in 2015.

The Eurasian curlew Numenius arquata, to give its full name, is a large wader, with long legs and a long downcurved bill.

There are around 68,000 breeding pairs in the UK. The RSPB and the UK’s four national conservation agencies set out the case for focusing conservation efforts on curlews in a paper recently published in British Birds.

Dan Brown, conservation adviser with RSPB Scotland and lead author of the study, said: “To see curlew populations falling so drastically is a major concern.

“We are responsible for more than a quarter of the world’s population in the UK, so the large declines currently occurring may be having a big impact on the global population.

“On this basis, the curlew emerges as our highest priority species from a global perspective – conservation success in the UK will go a long way to helping secure the global population.

“We also approach this work acutely aware that, sadly, two close relatives of the Eurasian curlew – the Eskimo curlew and the Slender-billed curlew – are highly likely to have become extinct in recent decades.”

He continued: “We are working hard at home and across the curlew’s global range to mobilise support and plan conservation work. We have just coordinated an international conservation plan – a list of conservation and research actions countries can do to help conserve curlews - through an intergovernmental conservation agreement called the African Eurasian Waterbird Agreement.”

He added: “Meanwhile, at home, we have a Curlew Recovery Programme that started in earnest this year.”

This programme of work includes a five-year research project at six sites across the UK, where land management techniques aimed at improving breeding habitats and increasing breeding success will be investigated.

Andrew Douse, senior ornithologist with SNH, said: “The drop in curlew numbers demonstrates well a more general issue: a worrying decrease of many upland birds, all of which have large populations across the Scottish uplands.

“Familiar species such as merlin, whinchat, grey wagtail and dotterel have all declined. These changes likely relate to habitat changes, climate change and in some cases, predation. We’re working hard to understand the causes of these changes to make sure we conserve these important birds of the Scottish hills and mountains.”

Puffins, kittiwakes and shags were some of the other species added to the Birds of Conservation Concern Red List in 2015, joining birds like the curlew, dotterel and starling.

However, the assessment does contain some good news and demonstrates that targeted conservation action can make a real difference.

Three species (bittern, nightjar and dunlin) have been removed from the Red list and added to the Amber. While an additional 22 species, including the red kite, have moved from the Amber to the Green list; meaning they are of the lowest conservation concern.