"A moor without Curlew is like a night without the moon, and he who has not eyes for the one and an ear for the other is a mere body without a soul". These words were written by an acquaintance of George Bolam and were included in his Birds of Northumberland and the Eastern Borders in 1912.
I have a beautiful facsimile book (one of 300 copies) called 'The Birds of Staffordshire' by Alexander M. McAldowie originally published in 1893. He was vice president of the then North Staffordshire Naturalist Field Club. In the preface of the book it states 'It is hoped that the publication of this work will promote an interest in Staffordshire bird life, and prevent the destruction of many beautiful species which are now being ruthlessly exterminated'.
In this book it is written that Curlew breed on the moorlands in the north of the county; that Mr Brocklehurst reported that it occasionally bred on the Swythamley estate and that a Mr Masefield had recorded this species near Cheadle during the winter of 1886-1887. Sightings in other parts of the county of Staffordshire were also noted in this publication.
I have another facsimile book also called 'The Birds of Staffordshire' by T.Smith which was originally published in 1939 and originally published as an appendices to the nine Annual Reports of what was then the North Staffordshire Field Club between 1930 and 1938. It is the best summary of the incidence of different bird species in Staffordshire during the 50 - 60 years prior to 1930. There are only 200 facsimile books in circulation.
The Birds of Staffordshire (1939) reported that Curlew were numerous on Morridge and the Roaches in the Staffordshire Moorlands during the summer and had extended their range to Swineholes Ridge near the village of Foxt. The book refers to Swineholes Ridge and I know it today as Ipstones Edge (my wildlife patch) but there is a wood at its summit called Swineholes Wood. The book goes on to report that they arrive on the hills of the Staffordshire Moorlands in spring often during the latter half of March. A Mr B. R. S. Pemberton observed a Curlew flock near Warslow not yet paired on March 23rd 1923.
The West Midland Bird Club book The New Birds of the West Midlands (2005) reports that the largest concentrations of Curlew have been observed at two spring roosts in North Staffordshire where birds gather in March prior to returning to their breeding territories.
Returning to the book The Birds of Staffordshire (1939) it is noted from observation that every year Curlew flew over the Churnet and Middle Dove Valleys to and from their breeding sites, sometimes travelling very high, at others many yards from the ground. In 1910 they were observed passing through the lower Staffordshire Moorlands near the village of Whiston (above the Churnet valley/near Ipstones Edge) as early as March 12th and as late as April 17th of that year and on to the heaths nearby occasionally loitering temporarily, but without ever remaining to nest.
With Ipstones Edge being my local patch where I spend time with nature I see and hear Curlew along the ridge and on the slopes of the ridge most years. I love the bird, insect and mammal relatives I see here and long to return when I am away from the Staffordshire Moorlands. I see Ipstones Edge every day and know which bird and mammal relatives live there. I have many stories to tell of my sightings and experiences here from across the years.
One interesting account in The Birds of Staffordshire (1939) reported by J. Armitage was that of Curlews being noisy when breeding and evincing much unrest if intruders appear too near their charges; that in those days keepers encouraged Curlew for the protection of Red grouse by driving off Carrion crows and by giving warning of trespassers.
Also of note in the 1939 book is a report that occasionally in late spring a sitting bird can be seen on the nest surrounded by snow. The field notes from this book reported that Curlew traverse all of lowland Staffordshire and noted a number of sightings elsewhere in the county south of the Staffordshire Moorlands.
One particular sighting that interests me is from August 7th 1906 when a large flock of Curlew were seen in flight passing over the small town of Stone. It was reportedly very dark but for some minutes their wing-beats were audible, their cries incessant as they flew from the south-west in the wake of a thunderstorm. Later on August 27th 1906 another large flock of Curlew crossed Stone at 3a.m travelling in the same direction.
The Birds of Staffordshire (1939) highlights the fact that Curlew retired from the hills towards the lowlands about midsummer or soon after with almost all departed by mid-August. Observations also included some Curlew leaving the north Staffordshire moors and upland hills on June 14th 1912 and many times they had been seen crossing over the market town of Leek following this date. In those days Curlew were rarely seen on the moors in autumn and winter. Every year following the breeding season I see small flocks of Curlew in fields near the market town of Cheadle, and the village of Denstone, Staffordshire Moorlands.
|The Staffordshire Moorlands from Gibb Tor|
I've just read some interesting research about the fortunes of the Curlew in a book called Birds in England (2005) by Andy Brown and Phil Grice and learned that in the north Staffordshire Moors in 1985, 1992 and 1996 surveys of Curlew revealed 418, 280 and 173 pairs respectively which indicated a major problem for the birds upland breeding grounds here. The number of pairs will have reduced since then.
Another interesting book I have is The Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland by J.T.R.Sharrock published in 1976 which includes a fascinating feature on the breeding fortunes of this wader species at this time.
The excellent Bird Atlas 2007-11 The Breeding and Wintering Birds of Britain and Ireland (2013) reveals the loss of breeding Curlews from most of Ireland and parts of western Britain over the last 40 years as a key finding from this atlas. Since the 1967-72 Breeding Atlas the range has contracted by 78% in Ireland (losses mostly in last 20 years) and 17% in Britain. There was a 44% population decline in the UK during the period 1995-2010 (BBS Report 2011) and a 78% decline in Ireland during the same period (CBS Report 2010). Back in 2011 the highest breeding concentrations of Curlew continued to be in Northern England, eastern Scotland and the Northern Isles.
It is now 2016 and here in the Staffordshire Moorlands and during my regular springtime/early summer hikes to my local moors including Ipstones Edge and foray's to the Pennine hills and Forest of Bowland I continue to hear the mellow, rippling, bubbling and low whistle/fluting/courli calls of the Curlew. At the same time while I listen to and see this beautiful species I know only too well that a variety of factors largely human driven and predation by other wildlife relatives has contributed significantly to a declining population...and what about climate change and its impact now and in years to come.
Hiding on my bookshelf is a slim publication (species specific) from the Shire Natural History series called The Curlew by Gerry Cotter published in 1990 with contents including Curlew country, Voice, The breeding cycle, food and feeding, migration and enemies. It is a small gem in natural history writing.
|The Staffordshire Knot and the Curlew|
....and finally what would the Staffordshire Moorlands be like without Curlew, the largest wader species in the western palearctic. For me Wolf Edge, Knotbury, Three Shire Head, Gibb Tor, The Roaches, Morridge, Ipstones Edge and the fields around Cheadle and Denstone would be empty of song and voice, of poetry and musical beauty, empty of a wonderful feathered friend. No doubt I would weep and there would be pain, loss and grief. Perhaps I would sit, watch, wait and listen to the ghosts of this species in vast moorland spaces with only memories of what was once a thriving bird in this part of the world, only memories of what used to be.