Curlew Numenius arquata, flapping wings after bathing in shallow pool, Geltsdale RSPB reserve, Cumbria, England, May

Curlew

Curlews breed on open moorland, rough and damp pastures, unimproved hay meadows and boggy ground. They occasionally use arable crops and silage fields.

Curlews in brief

There has been a major decline in their numbers in some areas. For example, there was a decrease of 53 per cent in the moorlands of north Staffordshire between 1986 and 1996.

Such a reduction was probably due to a combination of drainage of farmland and moorland, improvement of grasslands, and predation, particularly by mammals.

Key points

  • Retain and restore rough, damp pasture and traditional hay meadows.
  • Extensively graze to provide taller vegetation through breeding season.
  • Timing of cutting is critical in meadows.
  • Provide damp areas, wet flushes or small, shallow pools as feeding areas for chicks.

What this species needs

Rough ground and tussocky vegetation for nesting from April to July

Curlews nest in a wide variety of upland vegetation types. They usually select relatively tall vegetation, either within a tussock on rough pasture or within the tall, but not too dense, vegetation of an unimproved hay crop. Silage grass may often be too dense to attract them. 

Ground invertebrates during the breeding season

Adults feed on earthworms, leatherjackets, beetles, spiders and caterpillars. Curlew chicks generally feed on surface insects and spiders. 

How to help

On moorland 

  • Avoid conversion of moorland (by drainage, liming, fertilising or re-seeding) to improved grassland. 
  • Graze to achieve a mosaic of taller, tussocky vegetation and shorter grassy areas. 
  • Small-scale rotational burning of heather provides preferred nesting areas, but bog areas should not be burnt. 
  • Restoration of wet areas by blocking grips will improve the habitat for feeding. 

On unimproved pasture

  • Unimproved pasture should be managed with no, or very limited, use of fertiliser. 
  • Use light stocking levels from April to mid-June to maintain nesting cover and minimise the loss of nests through trampling. 
  • Grazing by cattle from late summer onwards will provide a suitable sward for nesting and feeding in the following spring. 

Hay meadows

  • Retain or restore some unimproved hay meadows rather than harvesting all grass as silage. 
  • Curlews can nest successfully in hay meadows which are closed off in April and cut after 15 July. 

Wet areas

  • Wet flushes, boggy areas and damp, rough grassland can be retained or re-created by avoiding or minimising new drainage and by blocking grips and drains where feasible. These are important invertebrate-rich feeding areas, particularly for chicks. 

Tree cover

  • Curlews avoid nesting and feeding in areas close to tall tree and shrub cover. Avoid planting trees close to fields used by nesting curlews.
A Curlew in a buttercup meadow