Over-half of the world’s curlew and godwit species face extinction from habitat loss and other pressures. 

01 Mar 2017 | No. 2017-10

A new ground-breaking assessment published today in the journal Bird Conservation International has revealed that loss of habitat could lead to the extinction of a number of species of curlew and godwit, some of which are found in the UK.

The world’s godwit and curlew species occur on all continents except Antarctica, but breed only in the Northern Hemisphere. Over half are of global conservation concern, including two (Eskimo Curlew and Slender-billed Curlew) that are Critically Endangered and may even be extinct, and two others (Far Eastern Curlew and Bristle-thighed Curlew) also threatened with extinction. A further three that all occur in the UK, the Eurasian Curlew, Bar-tailed Godwit and Black-tailed Godwit, are globally Near Threatened.  A recent assessment has canvassed the views of over 100 experts and reviewed the scientific literature, to help highlight the many threats they face. 

Top of the list is the loss of non-breeding habitats. Most species rely on coastal estuaries and wetlands outside of the breeding season, many of which face increasing development and disturbance. This pressure is greatest in the Yellow Sea of China and Korea, perhaps the most important staging area in the world for migratory birds, in terms of numbers, diversity and proportion of threatened species.  Part of the East Asian Australasian Flyway, the Yellow Sea provides a vital rung in the migratory ladder between northern breeding areas in Asia and Alaska and southern non-breeding areas as far south as New Zealand and as far west as India. A quarter of the Yellow Sea’s mudflat feeding areas have been lost since the 1980s and much of the remainder is heavily degraded, causing declines in many wader species that depend on it. Increasing pressure for coastal development elsewhere in Asia and across the Americas may similarly affect other species. 

All curlew and godwit species nest on the ground in open landscapes. The deterioration of these habitats, for example through changes in agricultural practices, drainage, tree planting and disturbance is a significant pressure across Europe and North America, exacerbated by increasing populations of generalist predators such as Red Foxes. Climate change is also likely to be an increasing threat through time in both breeding and non-breeding areas.

It is not too late to act. Coastal sites that support important non-breeding populations need to be identified and effectively protected from development, most urgently along the Yellow Sea. Areas that support breeding populations across North America and Europe need to be sympathetically managed at a low-intensity, and where necessary, steps can be taken to reduce the predation pressure. 

James Pearce-Higgins, Director of Science at the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), and lead author of the paper said "These long-lived wader species require wild open landscapes for breeding, and generally occupy undisturbed coastal habitats at other times of the year. Many are long-distance migrants and vulnerable to change throughout their annual cycle. In many ways, they are among the most sensitive bird species to global change. That over half of the species studied are rapidly declining globally should emphasise to us the impact we are having upon the planet. Their long-term future may well depend upon how well we coordinate international efforts to adopt the recommendations of this paper and support their conservation."

Nicola Crockford, Principal Policy Officer, RSPB, said “The Eurasian Curlew is an iconic species; its appearance in spring is announced by one of nature’s most evocative calls. Sadly like many UK species the Eurasian Curlew is in trouble, their numbers have dropped dramatically, putting them at risk of disappearing completely from the UK.“

The paper recommends that achieving conservation success at the national or international scale will likely require dedicated programmes targeting species at risk, like we have developed for the Eurasian Curlew in the UK where steep declines have been a major factor in the listing of the species as globally Near Threatened with extinction.

Through RSPB’s Curlew Recovery Programme and BTO’s programme of Curlew research, we are working together, in partnership with a range of people from farmers and land owners to statutory nature conservation bodies, to reverse this decline.” 

Spike Millington, Chief Executive, EAAFP, said The coastal mudflats of the Yellow Sea are a critical bottleneck for Bar-tailed Godwits and Far Eastern Curlews, particularly during northward migration when they provide the first refuelling points after journeys taking several days from non-breeding sites in Australia and New Zealand. As these sites disappear due to conversion of intertidal areas for rapid infrastructural expansion, more and more birds are squeezed into fewer areas, making their conservation and management an increasingly urgent issue for the continued survival of these iconic species.” 

Contact Details

Dr James Pearce-Higgins
(BTO Director of Science)
Office: 01842 750050
(9am to 5:30pm)

Paul Stancliffe
(BTO Media Manager)
Office: 01842 750050
(9am to 5:30pm)
Mobile: 07585440910
Email: press [at] bto.org ()

Images are available for use alongside this News Release. Please contact images [at] bto.org quoting reference February 2017 - 10

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Notes to editors

  1. This full paper, published in the journal Bird Conservation International, will be available here on 1 March: http://ow.ly/vxnY309jQgW
  2. The BTO is the UK's leading bird research charity. A growing membership and up to 60,000 volunteer birdwatchers contribute to the BTO's surveys, collecting information that underpins conservation action in the UK. The BTO maintains a staff of 100 at its offices in Thetford, Stirling, Bangor (Wales) and Bangor (Northern Ireland), who analyse and publicise the results of surveys and projects. The BTO's work is funded by BTO supporters, government, trusts, industry and conservation organisations. www.bto.org
  3. The BTO is undertaking research into the decline of the Curlew in the UK www.bto.org/curlew-appeal
  4. Collaborative work on the Spoon-billed Sandpiper in the Yellow Sea and elsewhere in the East Asian Australasian Flyway, will support the work lead by Australia to save the Far-Eastern Curlew – the largest wader in the world – from extinction.  The major search which the RSPB led for the Slender-billed Curlew a few years ago may have failed to prove that the bird still exists, but we are working hard to ensure that no other curlew or godwit species also reach the brink of extinction.
  5. EAAFP - East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership. The EAAF Partnership is made up of Partners open Governments, International Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) and Inter-Governmental organisations, that agree to endorse the text and supporting the objectives and actions under this Partnershiphttp://www.eaaflyway.net/about/the-partnership/partners/

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