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The Return of the Curlew

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The Return of the Curlew



Curlew Conservation Programme

The Curlew Conservation Programme (CCP) has reported the largest number of young curlew fledged into the wild since the programme began in 2017.

The project, run by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM), said that 42 chicks reached fledging stage this year, up from nineteen in 2022.

The CCP annual report noted that this represents an increase of 221% in the number of chicks which reached the stage of being able to fly.


The large native wading bird with long legs and a long down-curved bill has inspired and featured in Irish literature, including song, poetry and stories.

Over the past 30 years, the curlew population has declined by 98% meaning that the species is one of Ireland’s most threatened breeding birds.

The decimation of the population is primarily due to changes in landscape and land-use, with the wet, marginal land the bird thrives on being depleted and made inhospitable.

As ground nesting birds, curlew nests and eggs are also vulnerable to predators, infield operations and disturbance.

38 breeding pairs of curlew were confirmed in the nine geographical areas of the CCP programme in 2023, an increase of twelve on the previous year.

A further ten pairs were considered to be “possible breeders”.

Nationally, it is estimated that there are just 100 breeding pairs remaining in Ireland.


The Curlew Conservation Programme, which is now in its final year, was established in 2017, following a national survey, which identified the scale of the loss and action required to save the bird from extinction.

The programme included the following areas:

  • Stacks Mountains (Kerry);
  • Lough Corrib North (Galway);
  • Lough-Ree (Roscommon Westmeath);
  • North Roscommon/Mayo,
  • Mid-Leitrim;
  • North Monaghan;
  • Donegal;
  • Sliabh Aughties (Clare Galway);
  • Laois/Kildare.

Local teams have engaged with farmers, landowners and communities in these areas, carried out surveys and nest protection, along with restoring and maintaining habitats.

The high number of chicks being fledged this year is being attributed to the more widespread use of “headstarting”.

This practice, which the CCP has implemented since 2021,involves collecting curlew eggs from wild birds’ nests and incubating them in a controlled environment until they hatch.

The chicks are reared in pens until they are ready for release back into the wild.


Although this practice boosts the number of birds being fledged, the report stresses that it does not address the underlying issue of habitat loss and degradation.

Dr. Barry O’Donoghue, of the NPWS who led the programme said that “this has been and remains one of the greatest conservation challenges of our time”.

“While the headline figures from the CCP areas may provide hope for the future, we ultimately need to restore the environment upon which these birds rely, and this includes wider issues even beyond immediate ecological considerations,” he said.

Minister for Nature, Heritage and Electoral Reform Malcolm Noonan said that the CCP report shows that there are practical conservation efforts that we can take to stave off extinction of the curlew.

“It also shows that we need to ramp these efforts up significantly, while also addressing wider land use changes.

“We will be announcing detailed plans to do just this in the very near future, building on the solid foundations that the Curlew Conservation Programme has provided,” he said.

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