There is an extraordinary passage in What the Curlew Said – Nostos Continued by the Irish writer and philosopher John Moriarty. He describes listening to a curlew calling on a beach in County Kerry.
“What an unearthly aria that call was.
Sometimes I would think, it isn’t a call at all.
But if it isn’t, what is it?
Is it a spontaneity of eternity that has somehow come through into time?
Hearing his voice, a god who had made the curlew would almost instantly want to remake himself as the thing he had made.
Universes he couldn’t call into being with a human voice he could call into being with the voice of a curlew.”
Few other birds evoke such strong images - other worlds, other universes, other ways of being. But when you hear a curlew call, it is not so difficult to understand. To listen to the clear, sharp “curlee, curlee,” firing like arrows across the horizon, or to the urgent crescendo of bubbling notes rippling out over the bog, is to hear mystical music that touches something deep in our psyche. John Moriarty is not the first to be enchanted by curlews, and he will not be the last.
The Irish have woven this stilty-legged, crescent-billed wading bird into their lives for as long as there has been myth, music, parable and poetry. They appear in the earliest folktales where they are storm birds, warning fishermen to turn their boats for home, or farmers of oncoming rain. They are said to have saved St Patrick from drowning when they called him to shore when he was lost at sea in heavy mist. A medieval monk, disturbed from his nightly prayers, wrote, “The Curlew cannot sleep at all/His voice is shrill across the deep/Reverberations of the storm;/Between the streams he will not sleep.” It is a bird of the wild, wet fields and bogs, of windswept estuary and rocky shore. For many it is the quintessential voice of the wilderness. It is also the sound of internal desolation - a broken heart. W B Yeats refers to curlews many times in his writings, most famously in his poem, “He Reproves the Curlew”.
O curlew cry no more to the air,
Or only to the water in the West;
Because your crying brings to my mind
Passion-dimmed eyes and long heavy hair
That was shaken out over my breast.
There is enough evil in the crying of the wind.
The cry of the curlew has been used throughout time to expresses fear, mysticism, lost love, joy and wild places. It is a malleable, shape-shifting call that has ignited many creative sparks. It is one of the great gifts of the natural world that in its variety of colour, shape and sound it helps us to express the intangible and to give voice to inner feelings. The creatures and landscapes of the earth are part of our creativity and fundamental to a vibrant culture. “It seems to me,” said David Attenbrough, “that the natural world is the greatest source of excitement; the greatest source of visual beauty; the greatest source of intellectual interest. It is the greatest source of so much in life that makes life worth living.”
It would be a tragedy then, to allow the Curlew, a bird that has provided so much inspiration, to slip away. If Ireland allows the curlew to fall silent, it loses so much more than just another species, it loses part of Irish heritage. In the late 1980s there were around 5,000 curlews breeding throughout the country, they were a common sight and anyone over the age of 40 will remember them. The first national Curlew survey was completed by NPWS in 2017 and there are now less than 130 pairs left. That is an astonishing decline. It is not an exaggeration to say that Curlew are facing extinction in Southern Ireland in less than 10 years. That sentence is almost too hard to write, it sounds like extreme fear-mongering - too exaggerated. Yet the figures are stark. The graph of Curlew population plotted against time plummets downwards and will hit zero very soon indeed. And this has happened on our watch.
Ignorance is no excuse in law, but it seems to be in conservation. When I walked across Ireland, Wales and Scotland in 2016 to raise awareness about the decline of the Curlew, I was astonished how few people knew what was happening to this once common bird. And that included nature lovers and bird watchers. Our interconnected, info-rich world is somehow failing when it comes to connecting us with the life that lives all around. How do we bridge that gap? What will energise us to take an interest and to act? Because if we don’t, then one day very soon we will look out over bog and field and realise the curlew sings no more.
The disappearance of curlews is due to a perfect storm of inappropriate forestry, draining of wet land, intensification of fields, increase in predators such as foxes and crows and the mass stripping of bogs. There are no easy solutions, but there are ways forward that are being explored by the Curlew Task Force, set up in January 2017. The Curlew Task Force is a unique working group of farmers, conservationists, foresters, turf cutters, academics and the NPWS, who are determined to find ways to work together to help Curlew across Ireland. As there are so few nests left in the Republic, time is of the essence. The Curlew Conservation Programme is the primary vehicle for enacting conservation measures on the ground, where they matter most. Some nests will have electric fences erected around them to protect the eggs from foxes. Increased fox and crow control in the nesting season will also give the chicks a greater chance of survival. Cooperation with turf cutters and farmers to leave areas where birds are nesting until the chicks are fledged will give the birds added safety. Vegetation can also be managed to give the curlews the varied heights of sward they need for nesting and feeding. Eggs are often laid in long grass for protection but growing chicks need to feed in shorter grass with lots of insects. In some bogs, drainage ditches will be blocked to re-wet the ground, which curlews prefer for nesting, and softer ground is easier to probe by their long, sensitive bills. Agreements with foresters will be sought to protect nesting and foraging sites from plantations.
And while the land managers and professional conservationists do their work, the rest of us must learn to listen out for and to love the Curlew again. Understanding what is happening to them is vital to halt the decline. Raising awareness about where they breed and what they need has to be increased. We need to teach our children to recognise their beautiful calls, and to tell them the stories and poems that celebrate this birds’ long association with culture. We need to go out on a warm summer evening and revel in that fluty trill - that sound of the Irish summer – that has inspired poets and mystics through time.
Ireland has a long and rich connection to nature, the roots are there, they only need be nurtured once again for Ireland to be truly green and full of life. Bringing back the Curlew from the brink of extinction as a breeding bird will be a huge positive step towards a brighter future for all of life on the Emerald Isle.
World Curlew Day is on April 21, my book Curlew Moon is out on April 19, published by William Collins.
Oh - and the fabulous World Curlew Day logo was designed by my cousin Nicola Duffy from Letterkenny!