Author warns over fate of iconic Peak District bird

Mary Colwell
Mary Colwell

Author Mary Colwell will re-live her 500-mile trek in search of clues to the growing threats facing one of the Peak District’s best-loved wild birds when she appears in Buxton International Festival’s book series on July 22.

The writer stopped working at the BBC Natural History Unit to track down the truth behind catastrophic population figures which point to the extinction of the curlew from the UK.

Her book Curlew Moon charts the fascination with the species which started during her childhood in the Staffordshire Moorlands – as well as the kindness of strangers who put her up during the walk from the boglands of Northern Ireland to the east coast of England.

Over the last 20 years the curlew, Britain’s largest wading bird, has declined by more than 50 per cent across England and Scotland and by more than 80 per cent in Wales and Ireland. It is now sliding rapidly towards extinction.

“They must have infiltrated themselves into my brain when I was walking in the Staffordshire Moorlands,” says Mary. “That call of theirs was always familiar to me.”

She decided to raise the alarm after seeing the curlew put on the Red List of endangered species.

“It was so disheartening to go to these places where there should have been so many birds but instead they are just hanging on,” she says.

New agricultural practices and predators such as foxes and crows eating eggs and chicks are the main cause of the decline.

“On the moors around Buxton you will still see and hear them, but whether or not they are producing young that will fledge is another matter,” she explains.

“We must become a nation that is aware of the problems affecting the natural world.”

And the fact that she set off on the journey totally independently, with offers of accommodation coming in from a Facebook appeal, demonstrated the power of the individual to take action.

“I did this walk without any organisation behind me at all. What was powerful for me was that it’s not just the big guys who can get things done: we all can,” says Mary, whose appearance in the festival is being sponsored by Buxton Civic Association, who protect 200 hundred acres of countryside around the town.

Most of the people who put her up weren’t even bird-lovers: “Everyone was so generous. They just thought: that’s a bit weird.

“We often feel powerless, but we can get involved, through nature organisations, writing to politicians and talking to farmers to work for a kinder world for wildlife.”

• Tickets for Curlew Moon with Mary Colwell at the Pavilion Arts Centre on Sunday July 22, 11am to noon, are priced £11.