Wednesday, 15 November 2017


Shy visitor - blown here by Storm Ophelia? 

AN “irruption” of hawfinches has been a highlight of early-winter bird migration to  the UK.

The resident population - which is probably fewer than 1,000 pairs - has been boosted by birds flying here from the continent.

Says Jamie Wyver of the RSPB: “Hawfinches are the nutcrackers of the bird world, with their massive parrot-like bills that can crack even the hardest nutshells.

“The influx is a real treat as hawfinches are very attractive birds, patterned with autumnal shades, including a rich chestnut head, rose-pink breast and black and white wing markings.

“In recent weeks, numbers seen have been much larger than normal, with hundreds of sightings recorded.

Lizzie Bruce, warden at the RSPB’s nature reserve at The Lodge  in Sandy, Bedfordshire, comments: “In our county alone over 230 hawfinches have been counted. 

“That’s extraordinary, as in most years we are lucky to see one or two. 

“At The Lodge we’ve had up to four hawfinches in the tops of the birch and yew trees with single birds flying over most days in October.

“This has caused great excitement for our visitors and RSPB staff, who have been dropping everything and running out the office to catch a glimpse of individual birds  perched at the top of a tree!’’

She continues: "Typically irruptions are associated with failing food supply: too many birds, or not enough food for them to survive the winter. 

“This happened last year with another species - the waxwing.

“The weather is also a factor.

“Hawfinches traditionally migrate south from their breeding grounds in Central Europe towards the Mediterranean.

“This year their migration coincided with the arrival of Storm Ophelia which headed eastwards from the Atlantic swirling anti clockwise, with the strong winds pushing many of the migrating hawfinches into the UK. 

“This theory probably explains why the majority of hawfinches have been  seen in the South of England and Wales.”

RSPB scientists are studying the reasons why hawfinches no longer nest in the UK as widely as they used to. 

There is an ongoing collaboration with Cardiff University to ascertain whether food availability may be a factor. 

Hawfinches are immensely shy, and winter, when many trees are bare, is probably the best times to catch a glimpse. 

Hawfinches flock together at dusk to roost in trees for the night, and will also gather during the day to look for food.    

Photo: Courtesy RSPB


Corncrake - alarm over population dip

 IT has been another disappointing year for one of Scotland’s rarest breeding birds - the corncrake.

According to the RSPB, numbers have fallen for the third consecutive year.  

Over the past summer, only 866 calling males were recorded in Scotland.

This is a drop of 17 per cent from 2016, and down 33 per cent from the 2014 high of 1,289 males. 

There were glimmers of positive results seen in some areas, such as Barra and Vatersay, with a 47 per cent increase from last year but these were outweighed by losses elsewhere.

Benbecula’s population was down 64 per cent, and Durness saw a 53 per cent drop.

The overall sharp decline has prompted concern from RSPB Scotland that the long-term survival of these birds as a breeding species here is now under increased threat. 

Numbers haven’t been this low since 2003 when only 836 males were recorded.

The RSPB is calling for renewed action to ensure that Scottish Government, and the conservation community do all they can to work with landowners and crofters to protect the species. 

Corncrakes are shy land-dwelling relatives of coots and moorhens. Every year these small chestnut-coloured birds migrate from their wintering grounds in Africa to breed in a few isolated pockets in Scotland, mostly on islands and the North West coast on crofts or farmland.

Once widespread across the UK they suffered from a reduction in both range and population in the 19th and 20th century, becoming confined to these Scottish areas by the early 1990s. 

At that time, faced with the prospect of corncrakes disappearing from Scotland altogether within 20 years, agri-environment schemes were introduced to turn their fortunes around.

These schemes lead to an increase in numbers to 2014’s high point.

While there may be several reasons behind the recent declines, including problems related to their wintering grounds or during migration, there is concern that recent changes to these schemes could be contributing to the declines. 

The gap between the old Scottish Rural Development Programme Rural Priorities Scheme (SRDPRP) ending and new Agri-environment Climate Scheme (AECS) starting has seen fewer areas being managed to benefit corncrakes. 

The uptake in AECS so far is considerably lower than in SRDPRP, though there is a chance this may improve in later years of the scheme.  

In addition, payment rates provided by government to delay mowing are now lower, which may reduce the incentive to mow later in the year and could lead to fewer corncrake chicks surviving. 

As corncrakes are naturally short-lived it’s crucial that large numbers of chicks are successfully reared each year.

Paul Walton, Head of Habitats and Species at RSPB Scotland, said this week: “The crex crex call of the corncrake in unmistakeable but in recent years has become something even fewer of us are likely to hear.

“In just three years Scotland has lost a third of its calling male population. This  is incredibly worrying.

“The gains made for this rare species now face being unravelled and lost, and their future is once again looking increasingly uncertain in Scotland unless action is taken.”

RSPB Scotland is calling on the Scottish Government to work with them to ensure the long term survival of breeding corncrakes here. 

It says that the upcoming application window for AECS in 2018 needs to be vigorously promoted with application support provided to encourage as much uptake as possible in these areas. 

Additionally, robust advice needs to be provided to all land managers on supporting threatened species and the wider environment.

Paul continued: “While we are extremely concerned that these recent declines will turn into long-term trends if no action is taken there is still time to prevent this from happening. 

“There is a great opportunity here for the Scottish Government to take decisive positive action and work with conservation organisations in designing a future scheme, not only to help corncrakes, but also to support crofters and farmers deliver as many benefits as possible for our country’s incredible wildlife.”

Photo credit:  Rachel Davies/ Flickr via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, 9 November 2017


Guillemot - one of the vulnerable marine species

A PROPOSED new windfarm off the East Coast of Scotland will be “among the most damaging in the world for seabirds ”.

That is the warning from the new director of  RSPB Scotland, Anne McCall, after the Supreme Court this week  refused the society’s  application to block a 64-turbine development  north of Torness.
Anne McCall - plea to Scottish ministers
Said she:  “We have worked on the Firth of Forth and Tay projects for nearly a decade to try and ensure that they progress without causing unacceptable harm to our internationally important seabird colonies.

“The  risks are huge to seabird populations, including puffins, gannets and kittiwakes - collectively one of the country’s most impressive and internationally renowned natural assets - which nest on our coasts and feed in the shallow waters in and around this area.

“There is little doubt this will be among the most damaging offshore windfarms for seabirds in the world. “

M McCall is disappointed that Scottish ministers are supporting the scheme.

She continued: “They have made many welcome statements about the value they place on being seen to safeguard Scotland’s environment.

“We would call on Scottish ministers to put those words into action and ensure that improvements are made to Scotland’s planning and consenting processes to ensure that such damaging consents cannot be issued in future.”

Developer Mainstream Renewable Power said it now looked forward to starting construction next year on a windfarm which it claims will be capable of powering 325,000 homes.

The company’s chief operating officer, Andy Kinsella, commented : “After more than two years and two court hearings, we hope that the RSPB allows us to get on with delivering the very significant benefits this project brings to the Scottish economy and its environment.”
Andy Kinsella - "very significant benefits"
Mr Kinsella believes the windfarm can be built without harming wildlife and said the introduction of more powerful turbines had made it possible to reduce the number from 125 in the original planning application to a maximum of 64.

Earlier in the year, Dr Eddie O’Connor, who co-founded Mainstream in 2008, chided the RSPB in a blog.

He wrote: “We have been working on this project since 2009. 

“At every stage, we have worked closely and patiently with our environmental partners to assess and mitigate the potential impact on marine wildlife.

Eddie O'Connor - combatting climate change is vital
 “For us, it is not just about this one project. It is about building new energy systems that will make a material contribution to combatting climate change - the very climate change that is warming the waters around the British Isles and, by driving sandeel populations northwards, depriving iconic bird species of their traditional feeding grounds.

“We all recognise that the RSPB has a duty to its members to act to protect the UK’s bird populations, and we have had a constructive relationship with them for many years.

“What is disappointing is that they have sought  dramatically to overstate the potential impact of this project on birdlife in the Forth and Tay estuaries.

“Recent suggestions that thousands of gannets could be harmed are so far from reality.

“Several reports in recent years have suggested climate change is the major factor in the decline on many seabird populations.

“Alongside advances in turbine technology, there have been similar advances in our understanding of seabird behaviour around offshore turbines.  

The ORJIP (Offshore Renewable Joint Industry Programme) Bird Collision study has used real data from the 100-turbine Thanet offshore windfarm to identify bird behaviour around large offshore infrastructure projects.

“While the draft findings have not been released, I am reassured by what is being discovered about bird activity and avoidance. 

“The RSPB is also aware of this data, which is why their strident reaction to the court decision is so puzzling.

“The advances in turbine technology, reduction in turbine numbers and improvements in knowledge of seabird behaviour, mean that previous assessments of risk to birds are gross overestimates.

The turbines  will be spaced more than  a kilometre apart, providing huge corridors for transit. 

 “Mainstream is committed to undertaking studies of a similar scale to the ORJIP study when NNG is operational, to reduce risk to wildlife and to further improve science in this area.  

“We hope that this can be undertaken in collaboration with the RSPB and other environmental organisations.

“I am reassured by the more measured views of the RSPB’s sister environmental organisations. 

“We all want to do the right thing for the environment. I set up Mainstream to help the world achieve its once off transition to sustainability. 

“This is a huge driving force for us at Mainstream, where the company has committed itself to leading the drive to make electricity without emitting CO2.

“I want to work with the RSPB and all our partners to build NNG in a way that has the least impact on the environment.

 “The project will also act as an artificial reef and by so doing enable the build-up of fish stocks, which have also been decimated by climate change.

Dr O’Connor concluded: “It is time for our friends in the RSPB and across the environmental movement to sit down with us, and with the Scottish government, to agree on a common objective - the imminent risk to all life, avian and human, posed by climate change, and the necessity to work together to find solutions to this, the greatest challenge of our age.”

* The Supreme Court judgement is below:

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) (Appellant) v The Scottish Ministers and others (Respondents) (Scotland) - UKSC 2017/0143

On appeal from the Court of Session (Scotland)

Permission to appeal has been refused in this case in which the RSPB objects to the decision of the Respondent to grant consent under the Electricity Act 1989 to the construction of wind farms in the North Sea. The Appellant objected to the developments on the basis that they could have an adverse impact to seabirds.

Appropriate Assessments ("AAs") were carried out on behalf of the Respondents under the Habitats Regulations 1994 and 2010 and the Offshore Marine Regulations 2007, which concluded that the wind farms would not adversely affect the integrity of the special protection areas. The RSPB raised concerns about the scientific methodology used in the AAs and argued that it did not receive sufficient information in relation to the applications for consent. The Appellant raised judicial review proceedings against the Respondent. The Lord Ordinary reduced the decision of the Respondents to grant the consents to the Interested Parties. The Respondents successfully appealed to the Inner House. 

Permission to appeal been refused on the grounds that the application does not raise an arguable point of law of general public importance which ought to be considered at this time, bearing in mind that the case has already been the subject of judicial decision and reviewed on appeal.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017


AN encouraging note has today (November 8) been sounded on the ongoing campaign to halt the illegal songbird-trapping that has, for many years, been rife in parts of Southern Europe.

Thanks to volunteers who have been seizing trapping equipment and supplying evidence to the police, it appears  to have been much reduced during the 2017 autumn migration  season.

Monitoring will resume shortly, but, during a brief lull, Alexander Heyd, the managing director of the Bonn-based Committee against Bird Slaughter, has expressed his thanks to all activists and supporters.

His report on the autumn migration season is printed below.

As of last weekend, with the completion of our operations in Cyprus and the northern Italian Alps of Brescia, all our autumn bird protection camps across the Mediterranean region have now ended.

Cyprus: almost 3,500 traps and nets collected!

Since the end of August, more than 30 nature and animal friends from
Great Britain, Germany, Italy, France, Slovenia, Switzerland, Serbia, Poland, Hungary, Cyprus and the USA have been working on the Mediterranean island. In nine weeks, they found 3,353 limesticks, 143 nets, 96 electronic decoys and dismantled them together with the police and the Game Fund.  A total of 20 poachers were prosecuted based on our findings. Some 420 birds were liberated from the illegal traps. The bird migration is over now and the poaching should now stop for a short time. We will launch our next operation on Cyprus when the winter trapping season begins in just a few weeks.

Brescia: 48 poachers convicted!

As the winter creeps in and the frosts begin to bite, we have also ended our five-week mission in the Alpine mountains between
Lake Garda and Lake Iseo. Over the course of the operation, approximately 50 participants have found 73 active trapping sites. containing a total of 96 bow traps, 630 snap traps, 41 mist nets,15 small nets and seven cage traps. The police have convicted 48 poachers based on our findings. In premises searches conducted by the authorities, another 62 trapping nets and around 450 frozen songbirds were seized. More than 800 live finches, thrushes, tits and robins were handed over to CABS for release. These high figures may be somewhat misleading, bird poaching in Brescia is declining - we’ve never had so few active trapping sites!

Spain: Losing the limesticks!

Our campaign against bird trapping in eastern
Spain has also been successful: During our 10-day mission in Valencia and Castellon, we found only six  active trapping installations (the so-called "parany") with limesticks. Two poachers were convicted by the Guardia Civil. Only five years ago we found hundreds of these large trapping sites of this kind - it seems our actions have resulted in the poaching being almost brought to a halt in no time!

Malta: 6,000 trapping licences approved.

Despite a pending lawsuit in the European Court of Justice, songbird trapping on
Malta is now in full swing. To secure the votes of trappers for the next election, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has authorised the approval of an incredible 6,000 licences to trap finches, thrushes and plovers. CABS teams are in place and ready to document the mass-catch for the European Commission. In the last two weeks alone, a total of 140 sites have been reported to the WBRU (Wild Bird Regulation Unit) which will examine each case individually.

Thanks for your help!

Our autumn missions - from the action in Northern Italy against the trapping of flycatchers (August), through our first operation in Lebanon (September) and the birds of prey campaigns in Messina and Malta (both in September) to the completion of the major bird protection camps in Cyprus and Brescia - have cost about 70,000 euros. Without your donations we would not have been able to achieve these results and carry out these missions to this extent. Our successes across all these poaching hotspots are therefore our combined success!

Thank you for the great support.


Friday, 3 November 2017



MP and bird enthusiast Richard Benyon secured an autumn debate at Westminster Hall on the plight of the curlew - a ground-nesting wader that is in rapid breeding decline in the UK, especially in the lowlands. In it, he made an impassioned call for the introduction of measures to control predators such as foxes and carrion crows which target the eggs and chicks of this iconic species. Two other MPs, Julian Sturdy and Simon Hart, plus the responsible minister,Therese Coffey, also took part in the debate, chaired by Sir Roger Gale,  which is recorded below courtesy of Hansard.

Richard Benyon (Newbury) Con 

I beg to move that this House has considered lowland curlew.

It is a pleasure to talk about the natural environment under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, as you have spoken out forcefully for animal welfare and the natural environment during your time in Parliament. One of the great things about this forum is that is allows Members of this House to indulge their passions.

I am proud to call myself a passionate bird lover.

I applied for this debate in the context of a crisis of species decline across these islands. 

For me, the curlew is special. It is one of our largest waders, with a beautiful, haunting call, but this species of bird is in serious trouble across large parts of Britain.

 Across many counties, species of birds, mammals, invertebrates and plants are going extinct. 

The curlew is already extinct in my county of Berkshire, and it is estimated that there are just 300 pairs of breeding curlew left south of Birmingham. 

At the current rate of loss, they will disappear from southern England in the next eight years. 

Like the nightingale and corncrake, these once-common and much-loved birds are silently vanishing. 

The reason is simple: curlew chicks are being killed by predators. In one study site in Shropshire, 63 eggs in 19 curlew nests were monitored by volunteers, and not one chick fledged. The majority were predated by foxes.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne), who has just left the Chamber, is extremely proud of the volunteer operation to protect curlew in Shropshire and is desperate to know more about what can be done to protect the remaining curlew in his county. 

Sadly, those facts about predation are not unique to Shropshire. Sites in Hampshire and Devon reported 100per cent nest failure last year. 

Those dire results prompted me to request this debate about the failure of existing conservation approaches to face tough decisions.

We need to recognise that this species is slipping away because our national approach to conserving species does not work well enough. 

Ten years ago, the Environmental Audit Committee identified that a new approach was required to address the dramatic biodiversity loss that is occurring in England, but that never happened.

I thought that I was helping it to happen with “Biodiversity 2020”, which was published under my watch at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in 2011, but it was not enough.

Over the past decade or more, politicians and large conservation organisations have become locked in a doomed pact. Both want to achieve change through legislation and increasing regulation. 

The logic is simple enough, and it suits both sides: they can both take the credit for acting without ever having to undertake a day’s conservation themselves. 

Should that approach fail, they can demand a further increase in regulation and take more credit.

The problem, as the curlew illustrates, is that it does not work.

The music has stopped, and as last year’s State of Nature report highlighted, 56 per cent of UK species have declined. 

The curlew declines are a reminder of that failure.

As a DEFRA Minister, I experienced lobby groups proposing that regulation would reverse losses. They were naive. 

In every area of life, regulation is important - I am the first to agree with that - but we never expect it to deliver success on its own. Yet some conservation lobby groups suggest that it is possible; it is not. 

With the exception of some coastal areas, to which upland curlew migrate, curlew are vanishing from southern England because the young are being eaten by predators such as foxes and crows. 

Predators do not comply with regulations. Even putting electric fencing around nests does not yet work. In the Shropshire study, volunteers watched as foxes simply waited for the chicks to walk outside the protection of the electric fence - we can imagine the rest.
If we want to increase curlew numbers, we need to stop being squeamish and start killing some of the predators that eat the curlew young. 

A few will be uncomfortable with that, but it is time to focus on what works, not on what we like. 

I am not squeamish about killing animals such as foxes. I do not want to do it myself, but I would if I had to. I get no pleasure from it, save the satisfaction of protecting a rare and threatened species.

Some lobby groups have been incredibly successful in building their income through recruiting a large membership and then seeking to use it to influence policy. For the curlew, that has not worked. 

That is because, to maintain their popularity, big membership organisations avoid acknowledging that the approach they have been advocating for decades does not work, and they do not like the approaches that do work.

That lack of flexibility has resulted in farmers being paid to manage beautiful grass meadows for nesting curlew, but not to kill the animals that subsequently come along and eat the chicks. 

We would never allow that failure to continue for decades in other areas of Government spending - money being paid to people for no effect. Why should any conservation organisation want to use its significant lobbying power to block what works, just because it might lose a few members? 

One farmer in Kent said that “predator control does seem to raise strong feelings as some policy-makers have, over the years, become separated from the realities of conservation management”.

In Ireland, which faces a similar crisis, this problem is being gripped. Plans have been announced to employ staff to cull foxes, mink, crows and magpies in the vicinity of curlew nests.

How refreshing to hear that that will be happening alongside habitat management - the other key factor in species conservation.

Julian Sturdy (York Outer) Con




My right hon. Friend is making a powerful argument. I want to bring his attention to my own experience on farmland. We allowed patches in fields where we knew we get a lot of ground-nesting birds. But, to our dismay, we found a few weeks later that carrion crows came in, took the eggs and destroyed the nests. Those areas stood out like a sore thumb, so the crows prioritised and attacked them. 

Richard Benyon

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Sometimes the spatial measures that one tries actually draw the attention of the predator.

 As a Minister, I went up to Northumberland, where I saw layer upon layer of conservation designation, and lots of public money and public bodies protecting a very special site, but nothing had been done about the cloud of crows that were going to wipe out the lapwing they were seeking to protect. We need to reassess how we do this.

The contrast between Ireland and the UK is stark. 

The 50 organisations that published the comprehensive State of Nature report last year did not mention the curlew once in its 88 pages.

 I do not know whether that is because the plight of the curlew is too embarrassing; it is unlikely that they simply forgot. 

Only a year earlier, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and others published a paper suggesting that curlew are our “most pressing bird conservation priority”.

They were right to flag that up. Our Eurasian curlew are classified globally as “near threatened”, and since we are home to 25 per cent of the global population, we have to look after them. 

We should not forget that two of the other curlew species - Eskimo and slender-billed - are already assumed to be globally extinct.

Twenty years ago, English Nature, as it was then called, produced the first curlew nesting study, which reported that 64 per cent of chick mortality was caused by predation. Study after study kept making similar observations. 

As the studies continued, the curlew population fell slowly and silently by 46per cent in just 15 years. Regulation and legal protection were not enough. The drop would have been even more dramatic if the curlew were not thriving in the north of England on driven grouse moors. 

On those moors, the population is maintained because fox numbers are controlled by gamekeepers. 

There are actually more curlew on one grouse moor in Yorkshire than there are in the whole of Wales

On farms in the south of England it is an equally bleak story.

One organisation, of which I am proud to be a trustee, has undertaken much of the available research on controlling predators and recently launched a website offering information and practical advice for those who have curlew on their land. 

The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust is a charity bucking the trend. It is part of a groundswell of smaller organisations that believe the curlew will be saved only by putting farmers, not big organisations, back in control.

 If we do not, it fears the only place we may soon be able to see curlew in southern England will be on nature reserves where someone is paid to control predators. 

Those are some of the same organisations that object to the Government funding of fox control on farmland. 

I would go further and suggest that we should stop funding curlew conservation projects that do not include effective predator control options. We have to do what works, not what is popular, before those wonderful birds vanish completely.

Research carried out by the GWCT revealed that predicted populations of curlew will increase by 91 per cent where predation control takes place, and populations will reduce over the same period by 64 per cent where it does not. So please, no more research; we need action!

I am pleased to hear of the various workshops and meetings that have taken place in recent months that have brought together many of the different groups that share my anxiety about the potential extinction of the lowland curlew. I was pleased to hear from the RSPB:

“We are investing £1.8-million in an ambitious five-year curlew recovery programme... One of our main objectives is to test the response of breeding curlew to a combination of habitat and predator management work.”

It specifically links foxes and crows. It stated:
“Working with a range of partners, the trial management is happening across six key sites in upland”- not lowland - “areas of the UK: two in Scotland, two in Northern England, one in Wales and one in Northern Ireland. 

This will help us identify what we need to do (and how) to help curlew breed more successfully in the wider countryside. 

This might include developing policy and practice to reduce the numbers of predators in the landscape and shaping new agri-environment options to support land managers who want to do positive things for birds like the curlew.”

That is great, but it means more research and I do not think we need more research. I do not think we need to demand more money, as some are.

 It seems that some want more money from a post-Brexit agricultural support mechanism that is targeted towards species such as the curlew. 

That is fine, but I suspect some sort of agri-environmental plan that a curlew project could slot into is already on the cards and being worked on by my hon. Friend the Minister and her team. 
Anyway, if we wait until 2022, when the current arrangement for farm support ends, that might be too late for the curlew in lowland England.

Then there are some who want Government money to support the voluntary work currently happening in certain areas. I am happy to support that if it is focused in the right way, but what would it be for?

I would not advocate money for project officers to go around telling farmers what they should or should not do. Farmers, landowners and land managers are key to the success of any recovery project. Most already buy into plans, even at their own expense.

After 20 years of studying curlew, we know enough to take action. We need to empower, not criticise, farmers. 

The recent highly successful conference last week on cluster farms showed how an enlightened non-governmental organisation and charity can get huge environmental results by getting farmers to work together to pool resources and deliver real conservation in a short space of time across large landscapes.  

Simon Hart (Carmarthen West & South Pembrokeshire (Con)



 By way of an example and to reinforce my right hon. Friend’s comments on predator control, on the island of Caldey, just off Pembrokeshire, it was decided to simply eliminate the resident population of rats.

 It cost £75,000 of private money and was a straightforward operation. No permissions were necessary. Within less than a year, puffins have returned and the skylark population is improving. 

A relatively modest investment has brought about a transformation and, most importantly, the pest control has been profound. It has come at no social or economic cost, but I suspect that is because the problem concerned rats rather than foxes.

Richard Benyon

My hon. Friend talks my language. 

When I was briefly relevant, I managed to shoehorn some money out of the Treasury to assist the RSPB, which did a superb job in annihilating mice and rats on South Georgia and other islands. 

As a result, South Georgia is on the fast track to returning to the pristine environment it was before the whalers arrived at the end of the 18th Century, but I digress.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I stop when I see a fox. I love looking at them in the context of the environment, but when a species is threatened we have to treat all animals in the same way. 

We have to do things humanely in an understanding way and try to maintain a balance of nature. We cannot see species wiped out. We have to face the facts of the research that we know exists and take action.

Most land managers, like me, love their wildlife. Since they do not have large memberships to please, let us give them the practical tools and support that they need to take action. 

Only our farmers and land managers can save our southern curlew now. I have the highest respect for the Minister and look forward to hearing what she says. 

She has proved to be a fantastic listener in her role and also a fantastic doer. I hope the combination of what we say today will be a cause for celebration.

I have had the rare pleasure of lying in a meadow in Fermanagh listening to the rasping call of the corncrake. 

I will never hear that in Berkshire because the species now lives only in an existential state in the margins of these islands. 

We must not let that happen to the curlew. We owe it to future generations to do whatever we have to do to save this rare and special bird.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Dr Thérèse Coffey) 

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. 

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) on securing this debate. He has set out a compelling and passionate case for saving, preserving and enhancing the life of the curlew in this country.

As we know, he was one of my most successful predecessors. I appreciate his years of valued service and experience, and indeed the advice he has given me from his time when he was the Minister responsible for the natural environment.

As my right hon. Friend highlights, the curlew is among the UK’s most widespread wading birds, but its breeding range has contracted substantially in the past 50 years. 

As a result, and as he set out, 10 years ago the species was moved to the globally near-threatened category of the International Union for Conservation of Nature red list of threatened species. 

As was noted earlier in the debate, in the past 20 years the curlew population has decreased by about a half.

Supporting a quarter of the summer breeding population and a fifth of the overwintering population in global terms, the UK has an important role to play in protecting curlew. 

This is reflected in the fact that declines in the UK have a greater impact on the global population than in any other country. 

As my right hon. Friend knows from experience, the Government are absolutely committed to reversing the declines in bird populations, including curlew and other wading birds.

Declines in the curlew have been caused by a reduction in breeding. Although adult curlew are long-lived birds, very few breed successfully, and the few remaining lowland populations that have been studied show that very few, if any, chicks are produced each year.

There are two principal causes of the decline in production in lowland areas. My right hon. Friend set out very clearly the predation of nests and chicks, but there is also the intensification of grassland management, especially earlier rolling and cutting of grasslands, which crushes nests and can kill chicks.

On protection, the curlew is a migratory species and there is an obligation to classify special protection areas under article 4 of the birds directive, which requires the provision of Special Protection Areas..

The UK network of more than 270 SPAs covers about 2.8 million hectares of key habitats.
There are currently 87 SPAs in England, of which 13 have been classified for non-breeding curlew. 

There are currently no SPAs classified for breeding curlew in England or elsewhere in the UK, but reviews of the network show that the north Pennine moors - admittedly not lowlands -are the single most important site in England for breeding curlew.

A third of curlew overwintering in Britain use habitat provided as part of those SPAs.

I recognise that that is only part of protecting the species, but increasing that suitable habitat and then focusing on breeding success in upland and lowland grasslands is vital. We have to have an international action plan for curlew.

 We are contributing internationally to actions to address that in our role as a signatory to the African-Eurasian migratory waterbird agreement, notably through the national implementation of our international action plan for the species, which was adopted two years ago. 

The long-term goal of that plan is to restore the favourable conservation status of the Eurasian curlew throughout its range, and for it to be assessed by 2025 as “least concern” against the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s red list criteria. 

The short-term aims are to stabilise breeding population declines, to improve knowledge relating to the population and conservation status, and for any hunting activity to be sustainable.

In spring last year, an Ireland and UK curlew action group was formed by a range of organisations, including our country’s conservation agencies, the RSPB and the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust to co-ordinate conservation measures.

The group is meeting for the third time, but as my right hon. Friend points out, talking is challenging when it is time for action.

Activities already under way include Natural England working with the RSPB on a recovery programme aimed at providing a co-ordinated approach to the management of curlew habitats, including predator control, to increase breeding numbers. That forms part of the international action plan to address the “near threatened” status of the curlew.

My right hon. Friend argued passionately for the increased use of predator control in the protection of curlew, and was reinforced in that by my hon. Friends the Members for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) and for York Outer (Julian Sturdy).

 I absolutely agree that control of predators such as foxes and stoats has a role to play in the recovery of rare or declining species, particularly ground-nesting birds.

As my right hon. Friend knows, predator control already takes place throughout the countryside as part of normal farming and game-keeping practice.

 It is true that predation at the egg stage is common in some areas and control of those predators has a role to play in their recovery.

 However, that control should be effective and not lead to making the predators themselves extinct.

A number of species predate curlew nests and chicks in the lowlands, including red fox, carrion crows and badgers. 

The relative importance of different predators differs locally. Land-use changes can have an impact on curlew populations through support of predators, so there is sometimes the interesting challenge of fragmented landscapes - where we may introduce patches of woodland - that have often been shown to support greater numbers of predators, but can be beneficial in other aspects of biodiversity.

Areas where predators are managed, such as areas managed for grouse shooting, have higher rates of breeding success, as my right hon. Friend illustrated, and we have seen a threefold increase in curlew abundance.

The question of predator-prey interactions, however, is not straightforward. A variety of research shows that predators are part of a complex mix of factors that can influence prey populations.

 I am assured by my scientific advisers that the research shows that, although predation is the main reason for egg and chick losses in many bird species, most can withstand high levels of predation. There may be local short-lived benefits and we need to consider long-lasting measures.

Richard Benyon

Will the Minister go back to her officials?

 I entirely accept that populations of certain species can withstand levels of predation as long as there are plenty of them, but when there is a very small number of a declining species, there is no margin for error. 

We can do as much habitat preservation as possible, but if we do not include this part of the piece - predator control -then that margin for error means that we will continue to see a decline.

Dr Coffey

My right hon. Friend, dare I say it, needs to wait for the conclusion of my speech, which I have rewritten during the debate.

I wholeheartedly agree that we need to empower farmers. He will know that our agri-environment schemes have been designed with the aim of encouraging habitat management to promote conservation in targeted areas, whether that is about suitable nesting or foraging conditions. 

We are delivering significant areas of habitat for wading birds, including the curlew. About 600,000 hectares from the predecessor schemes are managed for wading birds, and since 2016 Countryside Stewardship has provided 10,000 hectares under the new schemes.

A payment-by-results approach currently being piloted in the Yorkshire dales includes looking at habitat, but I want to stress to my right hon. Friend that farmers are able to manage the land as they wish. 

They are paid on the suitability of the habitat that they provide, but they can undertake predator control. 

That is farmers’ choice. It is important to stress that they have absolute clearance from the Minister responsible. It is about managing habitat, but they are also free to use techniques to ensure that predator control does not undermine the intended outcome of the project.

In highlighting projects to help curlew decline, my right hon. Friend rightly praises the work of the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, including their action for curlew project launched earlier this year.

 However, GWCT states that it is not just about predator control. We have to make sure that we get a balance of dry nesting areas, wet foraging areas and insect-rich grassland for chicks in spring and summer. 

Through that combination of proactive habitat management and predator control where required, we can bring about positive change for curlew.

I am also conscious of the RSPB’s Upper Thames wader project, which is working with more than 200 farmers to create, restore and manage wetland grasslands to support species including curlew. 

That area now supports the largest population of curlew on lowland farmland and again demonstrates the importance of providing habitat and feeding resources for birds and chicks.

My right hon. Friend may well be aware of the curlew country project in Shropshire, which brings together local communities to raise awareness and monitor local curlew populations.

 I understand that, although they may not be having quite the impact that he rightly demands, in raising awareness and bringing communities together to work to preserve the curlew, they do valuable work that we should not underestimate.

I am genuinely grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising this issue. He will be aware, from his time as a Minister, that in a portfolio as wide as the natural environment, it often does take debates to get some focus on a particular topic. 

He has passionately set out why we need effective action, and I agree. That is why I will be asking Natural England and policy officials from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to include the use of predator control in all current and future projects that we fund. 

It is important to me that it is at least considered, and that reasons are given for why it is or - equally importantly -why it is not included in a particular scheme.

My right hon. Friend will understand that we need to undertake an appropriate mix of actions, including protecting important sites, working with farmers and other land managers to manage these habitats carefully, and targeting legal predator control to halt, and then reverse, the decline of this iconic species.

 The curlew is too important to be lost from our world’s biodiversity. As I set out earlier, our actions matter because a substantial proportion of these birds winter or breed in the United Kingdom

We need to make this a success, so that England and lowland curlew can continue to have the bright future for which my right hon. Friend hopes.