What do Curlews need? Given that the Britain and Ireland breeding population has declined by 50% in the last 20 years, and we hold a significant proportion of the Eurasian wintering population, they need an advocate who understands evidence and communication. Mary Colwell, and her book Curlew Moon, fits the bill perfectly. What this story also tells us is that for the diversity of locations where Curlews live in summer and in winter in our islands, there are people whose soul is stirred by Curlews, and who are now working to look after these precious birds. In describing her walk, 500 miles from western Ireland to The Wash, Mary engages us in both the heritage and future of Curlews.
It is the cry of the bird across winter mudflats that, for Mary, and for the poet Ted Hughes is the essence of the bird: Lancing their voices/through the skin of this light. Before the walk starts we are already in the realms of how BTO work is very much a basis for our knowledge of this bird. From the Wash Wader Ringing Group in south-east England, to Bob Swann tracking Curlew movements from NE Scotland to breeding sites in Finland, Mary sets the scene that this book is as much about the people for whom Curlews are important, as about the birds themselves.
The walk begins in Northern Ireland before crossing the border into Eire. Whilst there is an undercurrent of loss – birds now a distant memory where once they were part of peoples’ everyday lives - there is also hope. Work by RSPB in Northern Ireland, and by BirdWatch Ireland in the south demonstrates that habitat management solutions can work. And the Curlew workers Mary meets are enthusiasts and optimists. Arriving in Wales it is BTO Cymru’s Senior Research Ecologist Rachel Taylor who looks after Mary and explains our tracking work to understand the movements of breeding birds, and how their habitat requirements fit with the land-use.
Mary’s walk is no small feat, and her account is beautifully written, soundly researched and inspiring in terms of what each of us can contribute to saving Curlews. There is gritty realism too. Mary does not shy away from controversy and engages so positively with the intractable issues in the English uplands, where Curlews could so easily be the casualty of grouse versus predators. Her visit to Tom Orde-Powlett in Wensleydale, a landowner doing so much for Curlew conservation, brings together very different world views in the common cause – hope can be strongest where the future is apparently so bleak.
Lone travellers relying on the hospitality of others has a long history and is perhaps too rarely encountered in our modern world. Mary’s pilgrimage gives us a compelling message, and seems to me all the more powerful through the vulnerability of her choice of travel. As she says, using the old word hiraeth, we need to safeguard the love, loss, joy and sorrow that is the call of the Curlew. Read this book, and you will know why.