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About the Darley Beck Curlew Project

Guarding the chicks

Picture courtesy of Kelvin Smith

The main area of interest is approximately 400 hectares of permanent grassland/stock farms in Nidderdale AONB. The farms are part of the catchment of Darley Beck which includes an area known as Dacre Pasture. Most of this 400 hectares is improved grassland, originally used for dairy farming, with a smaller proportion of rough grazing on the steeper land. Because of the decline of curlew populations in the lowlands this improved grassland is no longer considered typical curlew habitat but it still seems to have a large population of curlews that establish breeding territories each Spring.

Unfortunately, their breeding success is usually poor and the grassland in this part of the catchment of Darley Beck seems to be acting as a population sink for curlews. Assuming that they are breeding successfully on the local moorland, which is only three miles away, the spill- over of young curlews into the grassland of the valleys does not seem to be contributing to an increase in the curlew population of the wider farmed countryside. Curlews only hatch one brood per year and each pair needs to produce 0.5 fledged chicks every year to maintain their population. This surprisingly low replacement number is due to the fact that, once fledged, most curlews survive for 10-20 years. Research carried out by Curlew Country on the Shropshire/ Powys border, a landscape similar to Dacre Pasture, found curlews in that area were only hatching 0.1 chicks per pair per year and their population was facing a cliff-edge collapse. Our curlew population could be facing the same disaster.

The first stage of this project is to determine the breeding success in the grassland of the valleys. We have obtained funds to recruit and train a corps of community birdwatchers who, during the first half of 2022, will map the habitat in the project area and try to determine the breeding success of curlews. They will carry out surveys of curlew numbers, plot their breeding territories, try to identify their nests and record their breeding success. During this first year the farmers and landowners have been asked to sign up for the project by allowing the birdwatchers to visit their land for these purposes.

A Curlew chick enjoying the grassland

Picture courtesy of Kelvin Smith

The Northern Upland Chain group which covers the Pennines from North Yorkshire to Northumberland recognises that the main challenges faced by curlews breeding in the UK are modern farming methods, predation and forestry. Stage two of the project in Autumn 2022 will be to assess from the survey results the relative impact of these three factors on the curlews’ breeding success. The results and conclusions will be discussed with the individual farmers and landowners to determine if there are changes that they could make to the management of their grassland to benefit breeding curlews. The habitat mapping may also allow suggestions about changes to other parts of their land that could benefit curlews. The need for selective predator control (mainly carrion crows and foxes) would also be kept under review.

Serious funding from FiPL would then be required for 2023 to pay farmers who agree to make desired changes to their agricultural practices and application for this would be made later in the Autumn of 2022.

The breeding success of curlews would continue to be assessed annually and further discussions with farmers would take place, an iterative process. If the project is achieving its objectives in conserving grassland curlews, farmers and landowners in the remaining catchment of Darley Beck would be encouraged to join the Farmers’ Cluster. Hopefully, when FiPL funding ceases and the ELM scheme commences, membership of the Darley Beck Curlew Project will allow farmers to enter the mid tier (Local Nature Recovery) of ELM scheme.