The Call Of The Curlew

One of my abiding childhood memories is to hear the call of the curlew at dusk over our North Devon farm, and to see this amazing large bird with its long, curved beak flying overhead. Its haunting cry, from which it got its name of “curlew”, was also broadcast in the introductory sound track to one of my childhood favourite nature programmes on the old BBC Home Service on our wireless.

Sadly we have not seen curlews on our land for more than forty years, although I have seen them in our beautiful North Devon estuaries, digging their long beaks into the mud in search of food.

Like so many other of our wild birds, the Common Curlew is no longer common! The RSPB estimates that there may be only 66,000 breeding pairs in the United Kingdom, and that represents more than 30% of the total for Western Europe. The number has dropped dramatically with a 40% fall in twelve years, earning them a “red” conservation status.

So we were delighted when farm manager, Rob, spotted a pair of curlews in one of our farm meadows this month. The curlew is a beautiful bird with striped plumage, bluish legs and its characteristic long, curved bill. They are said to breed mainly in Scotland, Wales, the Pennines and the North of England, and only visit other parts of the country in autumn and winter.

But we have a pair in one of our meadows in May, the middle of the breeding season. No doubt our Soil Association certified organic status and extensive, traditional farming practices have helped, enabling the curlews to feed on plentiful worms, caterpillars and other bugs, and providing them with the ground cover they need to make their shallow nests. Let us hope that they can breed successfully and that in the weeks ahead we shall see young curlews rising over our fields.