Experts fear that one of Scotland’s most familiar and internationally important birds will soon be critically endangered after new figures showed that populations have halved.
Latest surveys by the British Ornithology Trust (BTO) reveal that curlew numbers in Scotland have plummeted by 55 per cent to 31,900 breeding pairs.
The data, due to be released on Saturday at the 2013 Scottish Birdwatchers’ Conference in Edinburgh, highlights the latest declines in numbers of Europe’s largest wader, which have now reached near-critical levels.
The BTO fears that it is only a matter of time before curlews are added to the UK Birds of Conservation Concern ‘Red List’ for species at greatest risk of extinction.
Results from the surveys also showed that populations of lapwings, another key wading bird in Scotland which is already red-listed in the UK, have dropped 48 per cent to just under 44,000 breeding pairs.
Dr Chris Wernham, head of BTO Scotland, told The Scotsman that the new evidence suggested that current conservation management measures were still not enough to reverse the population declines of wading birds across Scotland.
She said: “This is very concerning, particularly for the curlew. It looks as though the curlew is going to have to go onto the red list for endangered species [as well as the lapwing].
“The steep declines experienced by breeding waders will concern the many people who enjoy the sight and sound of these much-loved birds.”
The falling populations recorded between 1995 and 2010 have been blamed on a combination of changing land-use causing habitat loss, climate change and increasing predation by animals such as fox and mink.
Urging the public to support conservation efforts by helping to monitor bird numbers, Dr Wernham added: “It is more important than ever that we keep a close eye on Scotland’s birds.”
The RSPB echoed fears for wading birds and criticised modern farming practice in Scotland, guided by European agricultural policies.
An RSPB Scotland spokeswoman said: “Scotland is internationally important for breeding waders, such as curlew and lapwing. The principle causes of declines in these species in Scotland relates to changes in agricultural practice, encouraged by the common agricultural policy.”
In a bid to find a balance between agriculture and conservation the charity said it was working closely with farmers in places including the Clyde Valley, Caithness and Strathspey, to create the best possible conditions for wading birds.
The RSPB Scotland is also removing “inappropriately planted” trees in the Flow Country of Caithness and Sutherland to open up the landscape again to provide habitat for breeding wading birds and to reduce the threat of predators.
The UK Birds of Conservation Concern listings are produced by BTO and other leading bird conservation organisations.
Of just under 250 species which have been assessed so far, 52 including the lapwing have been placed on the red list, which has similar criteria to the global International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List with factors like severe population decline.
A further 126 birds are on the amber list, including the curlew, with 68 on the green list.
The red list has increased by 12 overall since 2002, with 18 species added but six moved from red to amber.
The brown, long-legged curlew is instantly recognisable on estuaries or moorland by its distinctive, down-curved bill and evocative call.
Lapwings are more colourful with iridescent dark green and purple plumage combined with black and white. Named to describe their wavering flight, they are also known as peewits in reference to their display calls.
Like the curlew, they were once a common sight in Scotland, particularly on farmland.