Northern nature reserves and curlew conservation

22.04.2022 5 min read

Becky Bailey, Associate Director from our Ecology team is a trustee for Yorkshire Naturalists Union, this is one of many wildlife projects she supports across the North. Through this work, she met Simon and Jill Warwick from the Nosterfield Nature Reserve in North Yorkshire near Ripon. The Nature Reserve is home to a variety of wildlife including Curlews, for World Curlew day she discusses this amazing bird and its significant decline in recent years. 

Curlews are birds that have found their way into folklore and poetry due to their call echoing down the moorland or estuary, repeatedly described in virtually every article ever referring to the species as ‘haunting’. But sadly, the species has been subject to massive declines, with the total European population declining by up to 49% across three generations. Whilst the breeding populations of the UK have shrunk by a similar amount, the decline is over 50% in Scotland and Wales.

Studies have provided a range of potential causes for the decline including increases in predator numbers impacting upon breeding success, transition of moorland and/or wet grasslands to woodland, and changes in farming practice and climate change.

I took the opportunity of the upcoming World Curlew Day to go and speak to people who know curlew. Simon and Jill Warwick are two of the brains and hard-working bodies behind the Lower Ure Conservation Trust (LUCT) and Nosterfield Nature Reserve in North Yorkshire near Ripon. They were kind enough to meet up with me and show me around the reserve, and a bit of the behind-the-scenes action. This site was a quarry up until the late 1990s and in the 25 years that LUCT has been managing it, the team has had some phenomenal wins in regenerating the habitats present within the nature reserve, and working alongside Tarmac at the active adjacent quarry.

Focussing on regenerating wet grasslands for the improvement of waders and reintroducing locally extinct flora has led to massive gains. From a breeding population of absolutely zero curlews in 1997, the team had four breeding pairs in 2021. And the benefits have extended to other waders, their dream of four pairs of breeding redshank was achieved in their first year, and the site now regularly supports up to 12 pairs. They now host between 50 and 55 pairs of lapwing annually (with 57 pairs sitting on nest sites in 2022), and breeding avocet (the first records for North Yorkshire) since 2008. Away from waders, in 2010 they had their first booming bittern – another first for North Yorkshire, and have had 3 breeding attempts since!

So how is Nosterfield bucking these national and international trends?

For a start, they’re experimental and pushing the boundaries of what they have learned from experience, from visiting other sites. For instance, they were told that they didn’t have the acreage of reedbeds to support breeding bittern – however following a trip to see reedbeds both in the UK and abroad (including Belarus), they reviewed the fish populations in the lake. With an introduction of rudd rather than the more traditional roach, it appears that there is enough food to support bittern on a fraction of the size of other sites AND at a fraction of the cost. The entire reedbed establishment for the bittern project was undertaken for a total of £20,000. Similar projects in Yorkshire have costs of up to £2m.

Luck? Who knows – but you have to be in it to win it. And the LUCT is making sure that they are definitely in the game.

They took me to see their nursery where the team is growing previously extinct-in-North Yorkshire wetland plants and their experimental plots where they are working with a variety of planting densities and depths to see how these plants establish, interact with other species (including non-natives such as the sadly present New Zealand pygmyweed) and grazing pressure from the ubiquitous bunnies.

Now, I am by no means a botanist – I tend to be focussed on the bird rather than the plant it’s foraging in and around, but even I got excited about the reintroduction of great fen sedge to the site due to Simon’s complete enthusiasm and commitment to the cause. Managed and kept running by the dedicated LUCT volunteers, in 2021 the team nurtured over 25,000 new plants (including the hard-to-germinate great fen sedge) and this has meant that the habitats around the nursery have been taken from bare earth and open water in 2018 to over a hectare of wetland habitats modelled on other local sites, with plans to increase this to over 2.5ha in the next few years.

It’s a huge commitment, but it’s paying off with the increasing numbers of breeding waders (and other species including reedbed-focussed migrants such as sedge and reed warblers!). It’s an absolute joy to see wetland regeneration (or rewilding for want of a better buzzword) progressing so well and actually delivering the goods. It’s a massive credit to all involved at LUCT and the supportive relationships they’ve set up with Tarmac and the surrounding landowners and I cannot wait to see what the site manages to achieve next.

I came for the curlew, but I will be coming back for the conservation!

Curlew are regularly colour ringed in the Ure Valley and any and all sightings of ringed birds should be reported via:

Find out more about Nosterfield NR and the Lower Ure Conservation Trust here.

Photo credits: Whitfield Benson