They Elevated Burn’s Soul … The Curlew

One of our most loved birds is surely the curlew and it is especially loved by those who encounter them on their breeding grounds on, amongst other places, the hills of Nidderdale. Most loved perhaps for their delightful evocative, almost atmospheric, call, variously described as “bubbling song and whistling cur-lee calls” or a “far-carrying, rising, fluty, melancholic whistle, cour-lii.” However you describe it – and different folk seem to always choose a different description – unlike most bird calls it really is, I think, once heard never forgotten, although in case I am wrong or you need a reminder visit the RSPB website and watch and listen to the video. The curlew is a distinctive bird with its large size, some say as big as a female pheasant.  Although I have my reservations at that it is nonetheless one of our biggest waders and with the huge curved beak very distinctive.

Around now curlew are returning to the breeding sites and once again we can enjoy their delightful call. Curlew leave our hills after breeding and move further afield where pickings are richer and certainly in recent times gone by these have included the coast where frozen ground is less likely and there they are joined by wintering curlews from further afield, which might include Scandinavia and northern Russia. In fact it is estimated we have as many as 65,000 breeding birds and wintering birds may number as many as 150,000. But don’t be fooled, don’t think that these are good numbers because they aren’t, the curlew is considered a red list species. The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) tells us that “The Curlew is one of our most rapidly declining breeding bird species showing a 46% decline across the UK from 1994-2010 with this figure exceeding 50% in Wales and Scotland. The UK holds 28% of the European population and in response to these declines, and those seen elsewhere in Europe, the species has recently been listed as globally near-threatened, one of the few British species on this list. The wintering population in the UK originates largely from Scandinavia, but also includes a significant proportion of breeding birds, and has declined by 20% in the last 15 years.” The BTO have set themselves a goal to urgently identify the reasons for these declines as the first stage in the plan to conserve the species. Possible reasons for these declines include:

  • Increases in generalist predators reducing breeding success
  • Afforestation of marginal hill land
  • Changes in farming practice reducing habitat quality
  • Climate change

Britain’s estuaries support internationally important communities of wading birds due to our mild climate and key position on the East Atlantic flyway. However, our estuarine ecosystems are under ever increasing pressure from human activities, such as development and agricultural intensification. This .pdf file outlines the plans that the BTO have to save the curlew and provides ideas for you to help.

Now as often is the case here in Nidderdale you may think there is no problem with curlew declines, well that is certainly not the case elsewhere in Britain as the figures above reveal and just because ours are seemingly OK, which probably isn’t the case anyway, it just means that it is even more important to protect what we have got, because if we don’t then the future for our curlews will be very bleak indeed.

Curlew – Nigel Heptinstall

The word curlew has been in use since at least 1349 (curlu), 1377 (corlue) and 1387 (curlewes). Derived from the French word corlieu, it is basically an onomatopoeia imitation of the curlew’s call. Curlews have been around much longer than this and were recorded from the Pinhole Cave, Cresswell Crags, Derbyshire and considered to be the Late Devensian period or last Ice Age. The call of the curlew is of course well liked and loved and eminent writers have expressed their pleasure in hearing the curlew’s call. No less than Robbie Burns wrote, “never heard the loud solitary whistle of curlew on a summer noon … without feeling an elevation of soul.” Lord Grey wrote in The Charm of Birds, “there is none that I would prefer to the spring notes of the curlew … The notes do not sound passionate: they suggest peace, rest, healing, joy, an assurance of happiness past, present and to come. To listen to curlews on a bright, clear April day, with the fullness of spring still in anticipation, is one of the best experiences that a lover of birds can have.”

Long may we continue to be moved by the curlew and surely we must do what we can to ensure the curlew remains for those following us to equally enjoy.

There is still time to book a place at the Yorkshire BTO Conference at York University on Saturday, 18 March. Fantastic value at £22 per person including all refreshments and a buffet lunch. Look forward to talks on: Black Grouse, Gannets, The Lower Derwent Valley NNR, BirdTrack Project, Breeding Waders, Rare Bird Recording and much more. Exhibitors covering optical equipment, outdoor clothing, art, natural history books etc. To book just go to and follow the link to “News and Events”. I attended the last Yorkshire BTO event and it was very interesting

Nigel Heptinstall (Blogging at Outdoors2015)



“The History of Birds,” DW Yalden & U Albarella

“Birds Britannica,” Mark Cocker & Ricard Mabey

“The Oxford Book of British Bird Names,” WB Lockwood.