Thanks to enormous support from local farmers, volunteers and the generosity of the Trust for Oxfordshire's Environment (TOE2), the RSPB has successfully completed a pilot project to help the curlew, a threatened and secretive wading bird which makes its home in farmland across the Upper Thames River Valleys.
The curlew is the largest European wading bird, often found on winter estuaries or in summer meadows and recognisable by its long, down-curved bill, brown upperparts, long legs and evocative call. But you'll be lucky if you see one - they are highly secretive birds, hiding their nests in long grass. And according to surveys of wading birds across the Upper Thames River Valleys, spotting a curlew could get even harder, as breeding curlew have declined by 51% between 2005 and 2015, in line with the national trend.
Fortunately, the area still managed to attract more than 40 pairs over the last 10 years, making the river valleys of Oxfordshire one of the most important areas for this species in southern England.
In April 2016, the RSPB was delighted to receive funding from TOE2 through the Landfill Communities fund for a new pilot project to discover more about the breeding habits of this enigmatic bird, and the possible reasons behind its decline. The support from local farmers was vital to the success of the project, as most curlew nesting sites are found on farmland.
Every week over the spring and early summer, volunteers visited farms and nature reserves where curlew were thought to live, gradually identifying the birds' territories and recording their behaviour. Licensed RSPB staff then used this information to help locate the hidden nests, taking detailed measurements and installing temperature sensors to establish which nests were warm (and successful) and which were cold (and had failed). At least three of the six monitored nests seem to have hatched successfully, and recent surveying suggests that some of the young chicks have already managed to fledge and become independent of their parents.
Working together with farmers and local contractor R.C.Baker, the RSPB have also restored a series of 'scrapes', or seasonal pools, on key farms. These pools provide essential feeding areas for wading birds. The pools were re-shaped to create a gentler slope, improving the amount of muddy edge and access to the food curlews love to eat, such as earthworms.
The impact of this initiative will start to be measured next spring, when surveyors will re-visit curlew sites and discover how their numbers have responded. The RSPB hopes to be able to extend the project into 2017 if they are able to secure further funding.
Charlotte Kinnear, local RSPB Conservation Officer, said: "The call of the curlew is a very special part of Oxfordshire's landscape; I'm really pleased that this project has already greatly helped us to understand the needs of this wonderful bird. We are very grateful to all involved in the project this year. It's been great to hear from farmers just how keen they are to help the curlew, and to have had so much support from them for this project."
Ian Hayward, local RSPB Volunteer, said: "Taking part in the curlew project was a great experience. The farm I surveyed along the banks of the Cherwell is great for wildlife, there is amazing flora and fauna; on most visits I was able to see roe deer. It's great that local farmers and conservation groups are working together in an effort to help threatened species like the curlew. Having the opportunity to explore the farmland was a privilege and I'm grateful to the farmer for their collaboration."
Karen Woolley, TOE2 Chair, said: "TOE2 was delighted to fund this important project, increasing our understanding of the needs of the curlew. We're looking forward to seeing the outcome of the planned habitat improvement works and how this impacts the curlew population."
The RSPB would like to thank the Trust for Oxfordshire's Environment (TOE2) for their generosity and support for this project.