Yes yes, I KNOW that’s not a curlew in the picture, but when you go out specifically to write a blog post about birds you feel obliged to produce photos of birds. I saw and heard lots of curlews but failed to get useable pictures of them. I saw and heard red grouse and one posed obligingly. And anyway, management of grouse moors is directly relevant to curlew welfare.
Today, April 21st, has been designated World Curlew Day to draw attention to the rapid decline in curlew populations. To quote the RSPB: “Curlews are in real trouble”.
They breed across northern Europe and Russia, but are now deemed of global conservation concern and listed as ‘Near Threatened’ on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.
Historically curlew used to breed in many areas of Britain, but their breeding range has contracted, making them a rarity in southern and lowland areas. Luckily, they are still common in the North Pennines, and according to the RSPB in the dales of Teesdale, Weardale and the Allen Valleys there are more breeding curlews than anywhere else in mainland UK. The charity also notes that curlews are faring better within some upland areas which are managed for grouse shooting.
So, to pay homage to curlews and the North Pennines I set off for a walk from Allenheads. Despite the recent mini heatwave there were still a few duvets of snow on the hills.
During the nineteenth century Allenheads mine was the biggest and most productive lead mine in the North Pennines, and relics of those days are everywhere. A stony track out of the village led uphill to reach open moorland, and from the first few steps of my walk I’d heard that magical call of curlews. My first sight of them was a pair flying near a reservoir built to provide water for hydraulic machinery at the lead mine.
Curlews can look surprisingly white in flight, illuminated by the bright sunshine. In fact, it was so sunny and hot I had to wear a hat for the first time this year. Here’s a shadow selfie to prove it:
My route continued across rough pasture land, slightly damp in places, which is just how curlews like it. Lapwings like it too, and when I wasn’t smiling in sheer delight at passing curlews I was smiling in sheer delight at passing lapwings. They didn’t seem too bothered by my presence so I hope I didn’t wander near any nests.
The North Pennines has a fine portfolio of derelict farmsteads, many of which would have been worked by lead mining families.
Every few yards there was another leftover of the lead mining industry – old mine shafts capped with metal slabs and chains, ‘danger’ signs, spoil heaps and packhorse routes used by ponies carrying ore to Allenheads Smelt Mill. All this evidence of the past life of the area adds to the distinctive character of the North Pennines.
Gradually my route looped back towards Allenheads, descending steeply through spoil heaps bisected by streams to reach a farm driveway. By now the bleating of lambs had joined the calling of curlews and lapwings.
The curlews’ scientific name is Numenius. I can get it confused with the word Numinous which means revealing the presence of the divine, giving rise to a feeling of spiritual transcendence especially in nature or art. The closeness of the two words is a happy coincidence – the sight and sound of curlews is truly numinous.