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Lowland Curlew

Volume 629: debated on Tuesday 17 October 2017

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 (Mr 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 100% 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% 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.

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 know we get a lot of ground-nesting birds left among crops, 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.

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% 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% 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 46% 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% where predation control takes place, and populations will reduce over the same period by 64% 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.

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.

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.

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 SPAs. 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 AEWA 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.

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.

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.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.