Endangered curlew chicks rescued, relocated and released after peatland fires

Thursday 27 August 2020

Five curlew chicks will hopefully enjoy a new lease of life on a Co Antrim nature reserve after their eggs were rescued from a peatland blaze.

Curlews are one of Northern Ireland’s most endangered species – they have declined by 82% since 1985 – so when Lough Neagh Landscape Partnership (LNLP) staff realised that two clutches of eggs were at risk of being destroyed by peatland fires on the southwest shores of Lough Neagh, a rescue plan was put into action.

Working with RSPB NI and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, the LNLP took emergency measures to safely rescue the eggs, place them in an incubator and then transport them to the RSPB’s Portmore Lough reserve. The chicks were securely kept inside a pen in a field of rushy pastures – ideal habitat for curlews – and they have been released now that they are able to fly.

The Landscape Partnership team at Lough Neagh Partnership was forced to act swiftly after more than a dozen devastating fires, some of which were smouldering for weeks, destroyed over 50% of the existing nature area, removing vital nesting habitat for the adult curlews and destroying essential food supplies for the still to hatch vulnerable ground-nesting chicks.

The team has been delivering the National Lottery Heritage Fund supported “Saving Nature” project in the area since 2016 but this year things on the Moss took a dramatic twist when a fire ignited on a large block of peatland habitat and, as the local NIFRS worked around the clock to put it out, the temperate weather conditions, lack of rain, and fanning winds reignited the fire on other areas of the site. 

As the fires raged ever closer to the endangered ground nests of the curlews, the team on the ground took lifesaving steps alongside partner organisations to save the eggs. For the first time in Ireland, the team worked with NIEA, RSPB NI, and the local community, acquiring a licence to remove the fragile eggs from their natural habitat, due to the burning, to maximise their chances of survival.

Seamus Burns, RSPB NI Area Manager, said: “When asked by this community-led project to make Portmore Lough Nature Reserve available as a safe and secure place in this emergency response to save these curlew chicks, RSPB NI was happy to support.
“It is unfortunate that the project was forced to save these chicks from fire, but it’s heartening that so much effort is being made to ensure a more sustainable management of those same peatlands into the future, hopefully preventing this from ever happening again. 
“Curlews are one of the island of Ireland’s most endangered species, and collectively we all have a part to play to prevent their extinction. Portmore Lough, located close to the shores of south-east Lough Neagh, is managed for birds including curlews. 
“We look forward to welcoming the local community to Portmore over time to share information with them, so that the same approaches we take here can be replicated at a larger scale by others across the wider Lough Neagh landscape.”

Dr William Burke of Lough Neagh Landscape Partnership added: “These birds are so vulnerable and incubation was crucial for the survival of these chicks. This project became a real labour of love for our project officer Siobhan Thompson who, alongside Dr Kendrew Colhoun, and Kerry Mackie of KRC Ecological, completed the works on behalf of Lough Neagh Landscape Partnership. Kerry’s experience in incubating eggs and hatching chicks championed an innovative solution in record time to ensure the successful moving of the eggs and he then monitored the hatching of these eggs during some of the most difficult times we have ever experienced. The growth of the chicks has been miraculous and we are overjoyed to be able to release them at Portmore Lough RSPB reserve.”

Dr Neil McCulloch, Ornithologist at Northern Ireland Environment Agency, said: “Curlews have declined catastrophically over the past 30 years and the plight of this iconic species is now recognised as one of the UK’s most urgent conservation issues. The decline has been particularly severe in Northern Ireland, with over 80% of our curlews having been lost. One of the main problems has been the poor survival of young birds and every chick is now precious. The Lough Neagh Landscape Partnership are therefore to be congratulated for their prompt action in ensuring the survival of these broods and NIEA is delighted to have been able to assist this project. We now hope to see these young birds returning to the Lough Neagh area in future years and becoming part of an increasing curlew breeding population. The fact that this project was necessary also highlights the danger to wildlife posed by fires in the countryside, most of which are avoidable.”

Kendrew Colhoun of KRC Ecological said: “This was a big step for us to take. As conservation scientists, our key job is to work with the local community to gather information on these special birds to help inform their protection. It is clear that our love for them is shared by the community and we simply could not be bystanders to the acute threat of burning this season. In the wild we have thankfully seen some young birds successfully fledging elsewhere in this area this year and further boosting the Lough Neagh population, albeit by unconventional means, feels great. Major credit to those that agreed and in particular to Kerry for his great care and diligence in rearing these chicks to flying stage.”

The curlew chicks have now been released as they are able to fly and survive independently and it is hoped they will continue to thrive and breed in the Lough Neagh landscape. 

(Photo taken under licence at Portmore Lough by James O'Neill)

Tagged with: Country: Northern Ireland Topic: Curlew