Call to enlist gamekeeping students to save Curlew

Curlew breeding success is positively related to gamekeeper density

Scottish Government should enlist gamekeeper student task forces to help save red-listed species such as curlew from extinction.


That is the view of The Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA), which claims September’s State of Nature report * demonstrates an urgent need for new conservation approaches.


Populations of curlew have crashed by 61% in Scotland since the 1990s, escalating extinction fears, with an estimated 15% of the world’s population breeding on our uplands and shores.


Scottish Government has an international duty to protect curlew through the UK’s status as a signatory to the African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbird Agreement.


A number of scientific papers such as the 9 year Upland Predation Experiment (1), however, have drawn positive correlations between responsible management for game birds, gamekeeper density (2) and increased breeding productivity in curlew.


The industry's young hold the key


Given this developing knowledge, Scotland’s gamekeeping body believes the government should now utilise the skill-sets of its industry’s emerging young people, to help rescue critical populations.

Techniques such as legal predator control at scale, habitat manipulation and careful muirburn have been scientifically proven (see below) to benefit curlew and other threatened ground-nesting birds, not just quarry species gamekeepers are paid to protect.


By working in tandem with the SGA and Scotland’s gamekeeping course providers (Borders College, SRUC Elmwood in Fife and UHI North Highlands in Thurso), Scottish Government could enlist national certificate students for curlew conservation projects, further developing their fieldcraft.


The SGA believes this will also help to support new green jobs and assist in the quest to bridge rural skills gaps identified as a potential barrier to achieving Net Zero and Biodiversity goals.


“There is a snobbery in conservation that it is only something that can be done by certain types and bodies. However, there are land managers in Scotland carrying out practical conservation every day as a secondary spin-off to their day job that are getting very positive results and outcomes that are often better,” said Kyle Stewart, SGA Committee member and, himself, a former award-winning gamekeeping student.


“Science tells us game management techniques can translate directly across to practical conservation, often with very good outcomes. Why not use this more to benefit these keystone species in severe decline?


“Youngsters at our colleges today are already learning the skills that can make a difference. Why not tap into that, with ‘practicals’ on conservation projects to help us out of the Nature Emergency?


“By putting faith in our young people, Scottish Government can further develop skills and support green jobs. They can help shape the gamekeepers and land managers of the future.”


WATCH Ornithologist Professor Ian Newton OBE describe to MSPs the benefits of red grouse management for declining red-listed birds.


Scotland is a signatory to the UN’s Global Biodiversity Framework of 2022 and is due to publish the implementation plan for its own Biodiversity Strategy.


Goal A of the UN framework commits signatories to increase the abundance of native wild species by 2050, reducing the threat of extinction; something hanging over species such as curlew, Capercaillie and black grouse.


Time to think 'out of the box'


Gamekeepers leaders believe Scottish Government needs to look within the existing rural workforce to help find solutions to some of the intractable conservation problems it has failed to solve.


“The State of Nature report shows 11% of species at risk of extinction despite Scottish Government paying millions annually to the traditional conservation NGOs, and others, often to do the same thing over and over. Conservation has become: spend, media opportunity, walk away.


“That type of approach has failed. It’s now time to re-draw the narrow boundaries of what conservation is, and think out of the box,” said gamekeeper and SGA Committee member, Steven Hague. 





  1. (1)


Summary: Without predator control, Curlew numbers declined 17%. With predator control (by gamekeepers), Curlew numbers increased 14% per year.




Summary: “Curlew nesting success was positively related to gamekeeper density…direct predator control may be important to conserve ground-nesting birds…predator control may also mitigate climate change effects…’


State of Nature Report 2023*



Curlew facts:

(1) It is thought curlew will be lost from the lowlands of England and Wales by 2025.

(2) For a stable population of curlew, there must be an average of 0.48- 0.62 young, per pair, annually. Across Europe, the average is 0.34 chick per pair. This lack of breeding success is not enough to sustain the population.

(3) The UK is home to a fifth of the world's curlew in Winter.

(4) Given population declines elsewhere, grouse moors are now regarded as a refuge for breeding curlew (a surplus or a self-sustaining population can be produced on grouse moors due to game management).


Further Reading: The State of Nature Report (2023) and why Gamekeepers matter:


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