There can be few sounds so evocative of our wild places than the echoing call of the curlew, says Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserves officer Robert Morgan.

For many of us the call of curlew expresses the very nature of the lonely open spaces in which it lives.

Whether heard on northern windswept moors or the vast mudflats of the Wash, its eerie ‘cur-lee’ call has been immortalised in numerous poems and folksongs through the ages and is still one of the threads running through the fabric of our country’s rural identity.

April 21 marks this year’s World Curlew Day, and although there seems to be a ‘World Day’ for nearly every kind of concern or cause, this one should be noted by anyone with a love of our countryside.

The day is an initiative to highlight the factors that human activity is having on curlews worldwide, and they certainly need all the help they can get.      

Eastern Daily Press: Monitoring migrating curlew - Norfolk Broads

The curlew is a pigeon-sized bird, with undistinguished plumage of mottled brown and grey which serves as effective camouflage. It possesses, like many other wading birds, relatively long legs, but what really sets the curlew apart is an elongated down-curved bill.

The only other regular British bird sporting this feature is its smaller cousin the whimbrel, which for Norfolk, is only a passage migrant.   

When habitat permitted, the curlew was a widespread breeding bird throughout the UK.

However, centuries of hunting, land drainage and egg collection (for food and recreation) drove the curlew into our more remote uplands.

The turn of the twentieth century saw some recovery, even returning to lowland East Anglia.

In 1910 it returned as a breeding bird at Roydon Common and by 1950 it was breeding again in the Brecklands.

Unfortunately, this recovery was short-lived, and the species has seen a rapid decline in numbers since the 1980s. This decline has been mirrored by other members of the Numenius family.

Eastern Daily Press: Beautifully marked Curlew feeding on the Norfolk mudflats

The Eskimo curlew of North America, once numbering tens of millions, has been declared extinct, and the slender-billed curlew of the Russian steppe has had no reliable sightings since the late 1990s.   

Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Ash Murray, manager for our reserves in the North-West of the county and custodian of several breeding pairs of curlew, is clear urgent action is needed: ‘The UK supports approximately half of all breeding Eurasian curlew, Numenius arquata. 

Despite this, our population has been in long term decline, and it is estimated that it has fallen by around fifty percent in the last twenty years.’ 

As a result this species is considered to be vulnerable to extinction and is classified as ‘Near Threatened Worldwide’.

Ash continued: "This arguably makes the curlew the UK’s highest avian conservation priority."

After an absence of many years, habitat improvement work by NWT at a former regular nesting site, saw curlew return as a breeding bird. A team of NWT volunteers have been carrying out curlew monitoring at two sites in the north-west of the county, and as a result they confirmed that five pairs attempted breeding in 2023.

Monitoring showed that hatching success was good, unfortunately all but one of these broods succumbed to predation at the early chick stage.

Eastern Daily Press: Curlew flying over my head!, Elizabeth Dack, Titchwell, 16 December 2020

Despite this disappointment, Ash is remaining upbeat.

"The work carried out by our volunteers has been vital in building a better understanding of the key threats to breeding curlews and will contribute to the tailoring of future management, this will hopefully improve breeding success."

Further south, in the Brecklands, the Eurasian curlew has suffered mixed fortunes too, but with up to forty territorial pairs the Brecks are still the county stronghold.

They bred across several NWT sites here, but up to two-thirds are found on the British Army’s Stanford Training Area.

This proves a valuable point concerning land use, as it’s no coincidence that the army training ground has remained unchanged for decades – centuries even. 

Across NWT owned and managed sites up to nine pairs have been recorded, however as with the north of the county fledgling success is low but is improving.

James Symonds NWT warden at Weeting Heath has been monitoring birds at both Weeting and Hockwold ‘…with lower rabbit numbers and increased airborne nitrogen input means the taller sward height does seem to favour Eurasian curlew.

Eastern Daily Press: Curlews in flight, NWT Holme Dunes

Unlike upland populations, invertebrate food is still plentiful, so starvation isn't a limiting factor as far as we can tell’.

As is the case observed by Ash Murray, James feels predation is the driving force behind poor productivity, he stated that: "Even sheep have been recorded eating curlew eggs, so they get hammered by everything."

This certainly seems to be the case, recently a camera trap monitoring a Norfolk curlew nest filmed a pheasant pecking open an egg, presumably for the developing embryo inside.

Like much of our wildlife, curlew need greater expanse of suitable habitat to survive natural predation, hopefully our continuing improvements to nest-sites and monitoring work will provide us with the understanding to help achieve this.     

By mid-July most curlews have left their breeding grounds and moved to the coast, augmented by large numbers of birds from Scandinavia and Russia.

They will spend the winter feeding on lugworm and other invertebrates that abound within the mudflats that sit in our saltmarsh creeks and on our estuarine shores.

This is the best time of year to watch curlew and many thousands can be present in Norfolk.

Eastern Daily Press: Curlew in golden sky. RSWT

The best places to see them is along the coastline of the Wash or on Breydon Water at Great Yarmouth.

Let’s ensure that our largest wader’s distinctive far-carrying bubbling call continues to drift across our wild places and remains an inspiration for future generations.