The decline in Ireland’s native curlew population is far worse than initially feared, according to a survey of bird numbers.
The study of 60 previously recorded breeding sites in Donegal and Mayo found just eight pairs, four in each county.
The fall-off in numbers is so sharp that researchers believe the native population may be extinct within 10 years. Of the 60 sites surveyed, only six locations still held breeding pairs.
The study was carried out earlier this year by BirdWatch Ireland as part of a European Union-funded curlew conservation project in the Border counties. It suggests there are likely fewer than 200 breeding pairs left in the country as a whole, representing a 96 per cent decline in 20 years.
The last population estimates, generated from the 1988-1993 breeding atlas survey, found the traditional nesting grounds in Donegal and Mayo still held good numbers of breeding birds and estimated the country’s population comprised roughly 5,000 pairs.
The dwindling number of native curlews is masked by the influx of migrant species from northern Europe. They come here to avail of the milder winter weather and are commonly spotted feeding in coastland estuaries and other wetland areas.
“The marginal upland areas where curlews breed have been widely destroyed or fragmented by a range of land-use pressures,” curlew conservation project manager for BirdWatch Ireland, Anita Donaghy, said.
“Afforestation, commercial peat-cutting and wind farm developments are all factors that have probably contributed to the decline,” Dr Donaghy added.
Distinguishable by their long decurved bill and plaintive cry, curlews are typically found in watery pastures and on open moorland. Despite the precarious position of Ireland’s population, curlews still remain legal hunter’s quarry, meaning they can be shot during winter months.
The curlew has been red-listed since 2007 as a globally threatened species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
However, it is still not afforded an endangered species designation under the EU birds directive, which would oblige member states to allocate special areas for the bird to breed.
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