Curlew Moon

Published on 11 May 2018 in Book reviews

By Mary Colwell

William Collins, 2018; ISBN 978-0-00-824105-6

Hbk, 328pp; line-drawings

£16.99buy it from the BB Bookshop

Mary Colwell wrote Curlew Moon to help raise awareness of the plight of the Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata. This is an iconic but rapidly declining species – one of the world’s eight curlews, most of them faring very badly in the modern world, with two species probably already extinct. It tells the story of her 500-mile walk from the west coast of Ireland to the Lincolnshire coast in a six-week period spanning the Curlew’s breeding season. She visits sites where they are still desperately clinging on as breeding birds but is also forced to cross large areas where they have faded from the landscape, and largely from memory.

The book weaves together the story of the bird itself and the journey, including the places she visits and the people she meets along the way. There are frequent digressions into history, literature, mythology, even religion, which are interesting enough but do make the book longer and less focused than it could have been. She also deals at length with difficult conservation issues that affect a wide broad range of species but have hit the Curlew especially hard given its requirements for wide open spaces and sensitive habitat management. Forestry, peat-cutting, intensive agriculture and that most vexed and divisive of issues, predation, are all discussed as she sees their impacts first-hand and talks to people involved in trying to mitigate them.

It was interesting to read her views about some of the Curlew conservation projects that are already up and running. She visits several initiatives that have effectively harnessed the efforts of local conservationists, noting the advantages that come from working independently of mainstream conservation bodies when dealing with local landowners and farmers. At the same time, she sees that action is needed at a larger scale to make a difference nationally and visits some of the sites involved in a five-year Trial Management Programme run by the RSPB and others.

What comes across clearly is the frustrating complexity of species conservation these days, with so many factors involved and so many different interest groups (often with conflicting views) to satisfy. Her varying moods during the walk reflect these difficulties. There are times for optimism when she sees and hears the birds and speaks to people determined to help them survive. But there are also days of despondency, walking though vast intensively managed landscapes with few birds and seemingly little hope for a species with requirements at odds with modern human activities.

The book ends with a discussion of how Curlew conservation might be taken forward in future, including the dedicated workshops she has helped set up to bring people together from projects around the country. She is hopeful that this is one species where cooperation between diverse interest groups might just be possible. It is a bird that is universally popular and admired by birdwatchers, landowners, farmers and gamekeepers. It is also one of the very few birds that appears to benefit from the intensive predator control and habitat management associated with grouse moors.

Britain and Ireland are hugely important for Curlews and this book is both a celebration of the bird and a call for action to try to stem the losses. The fate of the Curlew will tell us much about ourselves in the coming years. For those of us still around, it will be a fascinating book to re-read 20–30 years from now.

Ian Carter