Caught by the River

Curlew Calling

26th May 2017

Curlew Calling is a collection of essays and poems edited by Karen Lloyd and published by Numenious Press, raising money for direct curlew restoration projects. Find below Karen Lloyd‘s introduction to the book. Details of how to purchase can be found at the bottom of the page.

Photo: Tony Cross

It’s sometimes surprising where poetry can lead.

‘Have you written any poems about curlew?’ my friend Mary asked, early last year. This exchange marked the beginning of my time working with a group of artists in the quietly wonderful Shropshire and Welsh borderlands.

Together with celebrated wildlife photographer Ben Osborne, sculptor Bill Sample, and composer and choir leader Mary Keith, our brief was to raise awareness amongst local communities of curlew decline and the pressing need for their restoration.

In the previous year in the partnership area, 21 monitored curlew nests were all predated – mainly, though not wholly, by foxes; nest cameras also recorded badgers and ravens. There was a strong sense of things being out of balance – but where isn’t there these days? Not very many years ago, ravens here were on the verge of extinction – now there are over seventy pairs. Ravens? Or curlew? If it came down to it – and in some places, it seems it clearly does – which species should we choose to protect? And who should make those decisions?

In early April I met the project’s field ornithologist, Tony Cross, and his assistant David Tompkins. As curlew began to travel inland to their traditional breeding places in the Shropshire and Welsh borders, we drove the winding, narrow lanes to them seek out. We drove through places called Squilver, Snailbeach, The Bog, Gravels, Rattlinghope, Fishpool. Tony had already begun to log the places where he’d seen curlew feeding, and on our morning drive, most of them were there again; nesting would only be a matter of time.

I met dairy farmers Jill and Bob whose red-brick farm straddles the border. As we walked towards the curlew’s meadow, Jill told me that they didn’t want to lose these iconic birds from their land; ‘We love hearing them. When they come back in the spring, it’s as if long lost friends have returned.’ We stopped at the gate where a generous third of seven acres had been sectioned off by an experimental electric fence, installed by Tony and Bob. Unseen, out in the middle of that swathe of buttercups and grass, was a pair of curlew, and a nest. We talked in whispers, but even that low level of intrusion was too much and the male curlew flew up, rising into the sky and casting out the two-note alarm call – courlie! courlie!

Tony and I began moving towards the fence, and then the female curlew rose too. We saw her head swivelling, keeping us in sight as she walked away from the nest and under the fence before lifting into the air, her alarm echoing with that of her mate. A black camera stood guard, orientating us to the nest. A dinner-plate sized scrape had been fashioned by nothing more industrious than the curlew walking the grass into a flattened circle. Inside, four curiously pointed eggs, camouflaged in greens and browns. Pyriform, the experts say, each pointed end orientated to the centre of the nest. Tony weighed and measured the eggs, numbering each with a waterproof pen and placing them back in the nest. He took the memory card from the camera, replaced it with another, and we left.

Photo: Karen Lloyd

Over mugs of tea and biscuits back in the farmhouse kitchen, Tony played the camera recordings on his laptop. So far, all was well – just eerie black and white images of the adult curlew changing shifts, hidden in the grass.

That incipient nest and its eggs were to me, startlingly, strangely beguiling – and deeply affecting.

Four more times I travelled to Shropshire. With an enthusiastic and melodious choir of local people, we sang curlew songs. Mary set my curlew poems to music. Ben put up a hide at Jill and Bob’s farm for taking close-ups and Bill held curlew lantern-making workshops with local families.

Back home in Cumbria, bulletins arrived, recording progress. The chicks at Jill and Bob’s farm were hatched, doing well, developing into fledglings. Amongst us all was a sense of anticipation mixed with anxiety; were they going to make it? One morning Tony found an animal trail invading the grass, but the birds were still there. I don’t think it’s overstated to say I felt a sense of connection with that nest. Having been there and seen the eggs for myself, I kept the picture of it in my head over the weeks, and, however ineffective a method of support it was, I willed those curlew youngsters to survive.

Photo: Ben Osborne

There was one more visit with the ornithologists to another nest in a vast field under the shadow of Bromlow Callow – a distinctive circle of pine trees on the summit of a hill, and visible for miles. The Callow is a way-marker, part of an ancient trackway, a cattle-droving road, and I wondered about the curlew that would have been seen and heard in the spring, in those blackthorn valleys and hills when the drovers camped up at night, or moved the cattle onwards. The bubbling, rising, haunting call of dozens of curlew would have been stitched throughout their soundscape; taken for granted.

At a quiet crossroads, we set out to walk the perimeter of a field under blue sky cruised by cumulus clouds. By now I knew the routine – walk in in silence, intrude as little as we humanly could. A curlew flew up from somewhere out there in the long grass. It began beating the bounds of the hedges and trees around the field edge, shouting a warning to its mate, courlie! The nest camera came into sight. We slowed down. Some 3 metres away, David quickly half-crouched; I copied, instinctively. He put out a hand towards me, indicating, ‘Stop!’ Something began to stir. Evolving out of the long grass, the female came up like a ground spirit. Here she was, so close, this ethereal creature, with that eccentrically long and elegantly decurved bill, the feathers dappled brown and cream, flecked with rivulets of umber, her rounded form pushed upwards on stilt-like legs. Inside the surrounding sphere of a white ring her dark eye watched us, watching her. Then she unfolded her wings, revealing the pale speckled underwings, and took to the air. This proximity, this encounter – the way people say afterwards how it was like watching in slow-motion – up she flew, moving across the cumulus, silhouetted in smooth, determined flight, Numenius arquata. Numenius, from the Latin, named for the new moon curve of the bill, arquata from the Greek, for the wings curved like an archer’s bow. Travelling across the clouds she cast out her curlew spell, her voice a tone-poem carried down to us on the Shropshire breeze.

That was the first nest to go. Raided by foxes, caught on CCTV.

For the second year running, none of the curlew young in the project area survived.

We had our final celebration evening at Norbury village hall. Over a hundred people from that highly scattered and rural community came. The curlew choir sang their curlew songs. People read poems they had written about the landscape and talked about what curlew meant to them. At dusk, we processed up the darkling lane, curlew lanterns held aloft and bats beating their aerial pathways overhead. We walked into a field where Bill’s installation of seven illuminated curlew lanterns were seen rising from a small black-water lake in a flowing, stationary line one above the other, as ethereal music and curlew calls played.

In May 2016, Mary Colwell walked 500 miles across Ireland and England to raise awareness of the shocking rate of curlew decline. She found that curlew will imminently be extinct in Ireland. In Wales, she met people who had not heard any curlew at all this year; whole swathes of the land we think of as true countryside – that patchwork of farms amongst hills, are now blank places where curlew, to quote Ted Hughes in his poem Curlews, no longer ‘hung their harps over the valleys.’

So what might be done? The BTO Curlew Appeal was launched in 2015, and the RSPB are carrying out research in a small number of sites, but more, much more needs to be done if we are to succeed in saving the curlew. Whilst fox numbers, (and therefore predation of ground-nesting birds,) are at an all-time high, there are also huge pressures from the over-intensification of farmland. And how visible would a camouflaged nest be, from high-up in the cab of a tractor? Without action, the haunting call of our curlew will continue to exist only as a symbol of loss; one that snags on memory – and humankind’s shame.


This anthology of writing and images has been published to raise funds for direct action for curlew conservation. By purchasing a copy, you are contributing to that positive action, as well as being rewarded by a collection of personal responses by 25 writers, including the former National Poet of Wales Gillian Clarke, and eminent Scottish nature writer Jim Crumley. The illustrations have kindly been contributed by members of the prestigious Society of Wildlife Artists.

Buy a copy here.