The curlew, our largest wader, is a familiar sight along winter coasts, but it seems its heart lies in the uplands . . .
As soon as the risk of frost recedes, most leave the coast to breed among the heather and rough grazing of the mountains. Until 150 years ago the uplands were its sole breeding ground, but during the first half of the 19th century curlews spread to colonise much of Britain, nesting in the rough tussocky wet pastures that were once common across the country.
Recently, however, the tide has turned again and its range and numbers have retreated: thanks to drainage, over-grazing and a switch from pasture to arable. Even so, many of our 110,000 pairs still breed away from their traditional mountains, most often in unimproved lowland pasture and salt marsh.
The name comes from their babbling cry of ‘courrrrrrr-li’ which is, if anything, even more distinctive than the beak. This is often heard over marsh and mud flat, but over the coming months is most likely to be heard ringing over moors and damp upland pastures as they establish breeding territories.
Curlews have a comparatively low reproduction rate. While fellow ground nesters like partridge and pheasant might lay clutches of a dozen to compensate for high predation and weather, curlews opt for quality rather than quantity, laying small clutches with four eggs being the norm. They give these extra care and attention – which perhaps explains why the female is, unusually, larger than the male (this makes her better able to brood her chicks in bad weather and drive off predators). The birds also compensate by extreme longevity, with 20 years being perfectly normal and the record holder reaching 31.
The birds are well camouflaged, with a drab plumage of mottled brown and grey, but they are still instantly recognisable at rest and in flight thanks to the long downwardly curved beak. They use this to probe for invertebrates in mud and sand, easing prey from the soil as delicately as a surgeon extracting a bullet from a wound.
Surprisingly, until comparatively recently curlews were classed as gamebirds in some areas. This was partially because they are a challenging target (they are difficult to approach), but also because they were rated as excellent to eat. In other places, however, they were considered bad luck and linked to witchcraft, perhaps because of that eerie, whistling, call. Today, however, its thin, trilling call, seems to encapsulate the last vestiges of wilderness, be it shore, saltmarsh or moor.