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Dramatic decline of curlew sparks fears of a wipeout

THE curlew, a wetland wader with a decurved bill and haunting call, has almost vanished from Ireland in a mere 20 years, in what is one of the most dramatic declines ever recorded for a bird on this island.

From a breeding population estimated at 5,000 pairs in 1991, curlew numbers have dropped to fewer than 200 pairs today, which, if the estimates are correct, would represent a staggering decline of more than 96pc.

It is feared that the bird could be extinct within a decade.

"Everything points to a decline, which is truly catastrophic," said Dr Anita Donaghy of BirdWatch Ireland, who led a survey of curlew numbers last spring.

"We could hardly believe the results we were getting."

The survey looked at 60 sites that previously held curlews in Donegal and Mayo, and found that only six of them were occupied -- with a total of only eight pairs, four in Mayo and four in Donegal.

Recently completed fieldwork for the new 'Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Britain and Ireland', which will be published in 2013, shows how much the range of the bird has shrunk since the book was last published some 20 years ago.

In Britain, where it is still fairly prevalent, the curlew's range -- defined as the number of 10km grid squares in which it has been recorded breeding -- has contracted by 14pc over the period.

In Ireland, the contraction is 61pc, and this year's BirdWatch Ireland survey looked at total numbers, rather than range, where the decline is seen as greater still.

Dr Donaghy said observations indicated that changes in land use were behind the dramatic decline.

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Curlews nest in damp, rushy pastures and on open moorland, using their long, curved, bills to probe for food in soft and wet areas along ditches or in shallow pools, where their chicks can easily find insects to feed on.


But these areas, once common in Ireland, are disappearing with developments such as the commercial extraction of peat from bogs, the planting of forests, more intensive management of grasslands and even the construction of wind farms, Dr Donaghy said.

While there were no actual studies showing that wind farms had a negative effect, it was unlikely that curlews would breed in their vicinity, she said.

BirdWatch Ireland is running its 'Cry of the Curlew Appeal' to put protection measures in place.

"Our research has shown that the curlew breeding population is in an even more perilous state than we thought," its chief executive, Alan Lauder, said.

"Unfortunately the remaining funds are not adequate to take the action needed to identify the remaining pairs and put measures in place to protect them."

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