The curlews of the North Pennines are so obliging. We had gathered at the start of our guided walk and I was just doing an introductory chat when a haunting call bubbled up behind me and a curlew flew right overhead.
The walk was organised by the Friends of the North Pennines to mark a growing movement for action to prevent the possible extinction of these wonderful birds. Their populations have crashed, prompting the writer and natural history programme producer Mary Colwell to do something. She walked 500 miles, from western Ireland to the Lincolnshire coast, meeting a wide range of people involved in land management and conservation. Her journey, and a whole load of fascinating information, are in her recent book ‘Curlew Moon’. She designated April 21st as World Curlew Day.
The guided walk began beside the River East Allen near Sinderhope and headed up the Black Way, a former packhorse route. This soon became part of Isaac’s Tea Trail, and to my great delight we had an actual Isaac in the group with his dog Splodge.
There were 26 people on the walk, still managing to chat and share information as we climbed up past Knock Shield. Well, 25 people did. As usual I ended up plodding, puffing and panting at the back.
We were seeing more lapwings than curlews, but their black and white plumage and aerial antics do make them easier to spot. The subtle brown, cream, grey and white feathers of curlews blend in perfectly with the rushes and coarse grasses of the pastures so they’re harder to see on the ground. We were treated to several in flight though.
At the highest point of our route we peeled away from Isaac’s Tea Trail, walking downhill to reach a path across meadows. There were many more lapwings here, peewitting through the air with effortless aerobatics.
The lapwings will benefit from land management measures designed to help curlews, and 400 hectares of new wader-friendly habitat have been created by the Allen Valleys Landscape Partnership, a scheme developed by the North Pennines AONB Partnership. They grant-aided 20 farms to remove rushes where they had grown too dense for curlew nest sites. Curlews need some rushes as cover for their nests and chicks, but they also need open ground to feed and keep watch for predators.
Once our walk reached the river we stopped for lunch in the sunshine, with mini Easter eggs being handed round for pudding.
After that we walked up the lane through the former lead mining hamlet of Sipton, adding oystercatcher sightings to our list of waders. We also added hundreds of mallards which congregate in the fields around a house on the edge of the hamlet.
The final section of the walk was through pine woods, with some welcome shade after the super-sunny moorland and meadow sections.
Mary Colwell’s book ‘Curlew Moon’ quotes many poems inspired by curlews and explores some of the folklore surrounding these magical birds as well as researching the science and natural history of their plight. She concludes with a passage about their haunting call and says “it would be a tragedy if, on our watch, we let that cry fade away from the song of the Earth”.
For more information about the Friends of the North Pennines see http://friendsofthenorthpennines.org.uk/
Details of World Curlew Day are at http://www.curlewmedia.com/about-wcd