ECOS 39(5): Book review: CURLEW MOON

ECOS 39(5)


Mary Colwell

William Collins


272 pages

Hardback £16.99

ISBN: 978-0-0081-4105-6

Review by Alistair Crowle

Appreciating the plight of curlews from a diplomatic journey

This is an interesting and thoughtful book. The author takes us on her 500 mile journey on foot, from Ireland to the English east coast, in search of curlews.  Along the way she meets fellow curlew enthusiasts and re-visits her past with the aim of learning more about the bird and the reasons for its near catastrophic decline. To begin with, I was not quite sure what to make of Mary Colwell and her curlew road-trip, but warmed to her as the story unfolded, although I remain undecided as to whether her journey, where she seemed to rely so much upon complete strangers, was foolhardy or refreshingly original.

The book itself is an attractive turquoise blue with an outline of a curlew in gold on the front. Inside, there are many line-drawings that add interest but some are more successful than others.

Early on the author nails exactly the causes of the Curlew’s demise and it left me wondering how she would conclude the book. There is a lot of poetry within the text, a bit too much for me as I would have preferred more on the actual journey, the route details, the highs and the lows of walking the whole way and how she dealt with them. We learn something about the author but I think that the book would have been enhanced by learning a bit more about her as a person. Maybe she did not want to detract too much from the purpose of her journey.

I was disappointed with her appraisal of driven grouse management. In particular, the time-worn justification for this land use being that in its absence the uplands will go to ruin or even worse, be re-wilded. Too many people see grouse management as something that would be acceptable ‘if only they stopped killing birds of prey’. Too few question whether the practices are environmentally sustainable with, in recent years, a huge intensification of management that has resulted in a proliferation of vehicle tracks, an increase in burning of vegetation (that the UK Government is currently being subjected to infraction over by the European Commission – no issues with the science there apparently) and the widespread introduction into the environment of anthelmintic medication that were it all taking place in the lowlands, would result in public outcry. Farmers can only look on in envy at the apparent freedoms afforded to moorland managers.

It is also surprising that the author seemed to accept that the massive slaughter of hares in Scotland on grouse moors was necessary for the management of ticks. As far as I am aware, there is no evidence to support this practice and equally, no evidence that it results in more grouse being shot. I think this weak presentation of what is happening is because the author feels conflicted. She has met some of those involved in grouse management and enjoyed the experience. It can be difficult to please everyone.

Upon completing her journey, the author recounts how curlew groups are forming in some areas to promote the bird and the management required for its survival. This is encouraging but I wonder whether it will achieve much.  There is a choice to be made. If we want these birds and other wildlife to flourish then we need to fundamentally change how we farm the areas in question and money needs to incentivise this. For this to happen, there needs to be an almost overwhelming public interest in the subject that results in pressure being put upon politicians to introduce policies that will deliver what is required. This type of change may take time that curlews and other wildlife do not have. Mary Colwell is an admirable lady and I hope that many others read this book and use it as a catalyst to begin their own wildlife road trip.

ECOS 39(5): Contents

Wilding by Isabella Tree

Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather by Tessa Boase

Ploughing a New Furrow by Malcom Smith

Curlew Moon by Mary Colwell

End of the Megafauna by Ross D. E. MacPhee

A Shadow Above by Joe Shute

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