Part 1: An Invitation to Prague
By Amanda Perkins, Curlew Country Project Manager
In the middle of September Tony Cross, the project’s Consultant Ornithologist, and I were privileged to attend the International Wader Study Group Conference in Prague. A workshop on the plight of curlew had been organised as part of the event and we had been encouraged to make a presentation about the Curlew Country project. When I told Tony about the requests to make a presentation, he said that we should not do it because the presentations were generally very academically inclined. As most other research is being led by scientists (often university based) he felt that we were not up to that standard of presentation. In addition the request for presentations to be submitted was sent out in the middle of the curlew nesting season when we had other priorities.
Time went on and when requests for our participation were repeated, I expressed our reservations, but other national project partners felt that it was worthwhile having a contribution from a different sort of project. In the end we sent in our presentation very last minute, with the caveat that it could be used or not to suit the organisers and we would be attending the conference to participate at whatever level.
Our last minute entry was certainly rather a light presentation in comparison to the many impressive and detailed reports, detailing fantastic work being done around the globe to attempt to reverse the dramatic decline in so many wader species.
There were presentations on breeding, migration and stopovers, foraging and ringing. Some dedicated scientists have been studying waders for 20 years to gather important medium term data that could help secure a future for them. The UK was well represented. Jen Smart, RSPB, delivered an excellent plenary session to the workshop day (which had three parallel workshops running – one on lapwing which we were sorry not to be able to attend) about work undertaken to manipulate and manage habitat for enhanced wader breeding success. On curlew Rachel Taylor, BTO gave a fascinating presentation on her ground-breaking work in north Wales where she has been GPS tagging curlew to assess use of their foraging sites. Irene Tomankova gave an overview of the work that the RSBP are doing on curlew recovery in upland areas, and we talked about our project more relevant to the non-high ground of the UK. There was feedback from the Lapwing Workshop that GWCT had delivered some good presentations on lapwing too, and then later on the inspirational black tailed godwit headstarting work, being led by WWT in collaboration with the RSPB, was presented.
Across Germany, Poland, the Netherlands, France, Estonia, Spain, The Czech Republic, Russia, Sweden, Ireland and Tunisia a number of good projects are trying to reverse curlew and lapwing decline and are leading the field in several areas. The habitat varies, but the over-riding problems are often the same. There were some notable success stories mainly among other species and sadly generally on a small scale, but even so an informed, active and capable bunch of people passionate about reversing wader fortunes are not managing to recover sustainable populations. Human demands are placed higher than those of other species worldwide and battling this seems almost impossible. Commercial and populist pressures for increasing amounts of ever cheaper food limiting farmers’ capacity to deliver alternatives seem unbeatable, if environmental outcomes cannot be sustainably funded on a longer term basis than most current agri-environment schemes.
As a relative newcomer to this work, I was surprised at how similar the problems for lapwing and curlew are throughout Europe and at how widely predation is a problem and also at the limited amount of work to intervene to protect waders from predators. Whilst most people agree on the main predators of eggs at nest stage, there is much more limited knowledge about the major causes of chick predation in many projects like our own. A report came back from the lapwing workshop that one of the presenters had said that he had been attending wader events for 40 years where people had been discussing wader decline and not got any further forward. It was re-assuring that the most successful projects seemed to be those that worked closely with farming communities of over long periods of time undertaking comprehensive research allied to intervention work. Inevitably funding is an issue for most projects.
The Curlew Workshop closed with a session organised and chaired by Natalie Meyer from NABU in Germany, who pioneered the trial temporary electric fencing around curlew nests that has helped chicks to hatch successfully in our project this year. The intention is to form an action plan for improved collaboration, knowledge sharing, and perhaps research, and trialling between various international projects. Yet again this can only happen if funds are found for someone to fulfil this essential role.
Needless to say, Tony and I felt it important to have a team meeting in the old city centre and then on another occasion I walked around similar streets, lit by lamps at night, with three fellow delegates that I had not previously been acquainted with, so glad that I had not taken the initially more appealing option of an early night. It is much hyped, but for me the centre of Prague was magical and did not disappoint.
So where does Curlew Country fit into the international picture?
We did not know what to expect and wondered if we would seem rather small and insignificant in comparison to other projects. In fact it was helpful to know that we are at a similar stage to other projects, many of which have been going for longer than we have, but like us no-one yet has the fool proof solution to reversing population decline.
In some ways the conference left many questions un-answered. For example our methods of tracking chicks are limited. Radio tagging is tricky so can only be performed by highly qualified ringers and then so many radio tags seem to be lost with their chicks within a very short space of time. In addition the tags are designed to fall off before a chick fledges, so accurate sightings and data on birds at the point of fledging becomes even more difficult. I will discuss some of the matters that we continue to ponder in the next blog.