Worcestershire Record No. 4 May 1998 p. 12
Not all natural history stories are depressing tales of vanishing habitat and declining species. Just occasionally nature fights back, often with our help (accidental or deliberate). This is a story of seven species of bird, yes seven magnificent species, once seemingly lost to Worcestershire which have either bounced back or are showing signs that they might reappear as breeding species.
The Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen of our story, the two most likely to succeed, had their populations decimated by the gun-toting Victorians. I refer to the Raven and the Buzzard.
Ravens bred in much of the County before the dawn of the nineteenth century, but were becoming scarce by the 1840's and 1850's when they still bred near Stanford-on-Teme, Upton-on-Severn, and Bewdley. There followed almost a century without a single known breeding record, indeed Harthan commented in his Birds of Worcestershire that they would probably never breed again in Worcestershire because of the lack of carrion. Never say never! After a few isolated breeding records at western sites from 1949 onwards, a real resurgence has taken place in the last 15 years or so. As recently as 1985 there were as few as three published records a year, but since then there has been a steady increase both in the number of birds reported and the number of confirmed breeding records. The recent article by Brett Westwood in Worcestershire Wildlife News (April 1996) gave some interesting insights into the reasons for the change, and graphically illustrates the extent of the comeback. Suffice it to say that during 1996 alone Ravens were reported from over 100 localities, largely in the west and north, and including at least six instances of confirmed breeding. Ravens being prone to wander, the breeding population will certainly be a lot closer to six than to 100, but there is no sign of any slow down in the spread.
The Buzzard suffered a similar fate to the Raven during the nineteenth century. It was not until the Second World War that there was a small improvement in the situation, as gamekeepers were called away to shoot Germans instead of the local Buzzard population. In the mid 1950's a survey of likely Buzzard terrain such as the Teme Valley produced evidence of 13 confirmed breeding pairs, and a further 7 to 11 probably breeding. Alas, disaster was just around the corner.The myxomatosis outbreak in 1955-56 decimated the county's rabbit population, and the ready use by farmers of organochlorine pesticides in the same period also contributed to a serious decline which left no more than four breeding pairs in the county by 1958. The ban on organochlorine sheep dips in 1966 saw the population at least stabilise, and by 1986 at least six or seven pairs were present, and not all of them in the Teme Valley. During the last 10 years, however, the numbers have rocketed. So much so, that the Buzzard was chosen as the subject of a county-wide survey during 1997 and 1998 to try to establish just how many pairs there were. The preliminary results from the first year of fieldwork suggest a population of between 36 and 82 pairs, a figure which should increase further after the 1998 season's results are in. A full report will be produced in due course, but there can be no doubt that the Buzzard is truly the come-back kid.
The remainder of our story concerns the possible future rather than the present. Five species which formerly bred in the county which have not yet returned, but could conceivably do so. The signs are there.
The first is the Red Kite. Yes, this was once a Worcestershire bird, but you have to go back a very long way. We are talking 17th and 18th century rather than 19th, although Harthan records that the species nested at Alfrick as late as 1840, and that birds were occasionally seen over the Malverns until about 1850. Those good old Victorians did their best to rid the country of the species and the last remaining birds gravitated famously to mid Wales. The species was protected there, an early success story for the new conservation movements of the 20th century and by the 1980's the population was very healthy. But it wasn't really spreading. The reason for the sudden optimism about the possible return of the Red Kite is the bold step by English Nature and others to reintroduce the Kite to central southern England and northern Scotland. The species is now reported annually in the county, many of the birds showing wing-tags which betray their origin to the reintroduction schemes. If we do get the Kites back, the first breeding records will necessarily be cloaked in secrecy because regrettably the Victorian pastime of egg-collecting persists among a few misguided souls. But perhaps one day the Kite will follow the trend set by the Buzzard and the Raven and become a familiar sight over the woods of Worcestershire.
The next most promising bird's last breeding season record was on the Lickey Hills in 1965, apart from a single bird at Leigh Sinton in late July and early August 1972. After that there seemed no way back for the Wood Lark. The species was declining nationally and was thought only to migrate short distances. The exact reason for the decline is difficult to understand. Climate change and the decline of rabbit cropped swards following the onset of myxomatosis have been suggested. By 1991 the species bred no closer than Nottinghamshire. Then, unexpectedly, things began to change. The Wood Lark populations in Breckland and other strongholds began to increase. They started breeding in Derbyshire, and from 1994 in south Staffordshire. Ironically, the habitat being preferred by these pioneers is a rather man-made one consisting of clear-fell areas in commercial forestry plantations. Hints that Worcestershire could be recolonised come particularly from one or two winter sightings of birds in the Kinver area close to the Worcestershire border. It may therefore pay would-be Wood Lark finders to check out not only some of their former sites like Hartlebury Common, and Devil's Spittleful where the species occupied Worcestershire's declining heathland habitat, but also forestry areas such as the Wyre Forest and Kingsford Country Park.
Talking of forestry, another potential returnee could also put in an appearance there. The Nightjar was formerly tolerably widespread in Worcestershire as elsewhere in the Midlands, with areas such as the Lickey Hills, Shrawley Woods, and Trench Wood holding them in the nineteenth century, and pairs in the Lenches and the Worcestershire part of Kinver Edge until relatively recently. The decline was a national one, with the contraction in range being blamed on a variety of factors such as loss of habitat, and increased human disturbance. Whatever the reason, numbers seemed to reach rock bottom in the early 1980s. But since then there have been signs of improvement. A national survey in 1992 showed a 50% improvement on the numbers found in 1981. The bulk of the increase was taking place in East Anglia, the south-west of England, and North Wales. In the Midlands, numbers were similar to 1981 levels on Cannock Chase in Staffordshire, the last remaining West Midland site. In 1997 however, survey work on Cannock Chase suggested a 20% increase there since 1992. With three casual records in Worcestershire in each of the last three years, perhaps we are in line for re-colonisation. The most likely sites are commercial forestry areas like the Wyre Forest, and Kingsford Country Park. Analysis of the Cannock Chase results suggests that much can be achieved by a sympathetic forestry regime which leaves plenty of open areas for Nightjars to exploit.
My last two suggestions are perhaps the species least likely to sustain any potential re-colonisation. The Dartford Warbler's claim to be a former Worcestershire resident is somewhat tenuous to say the least. Harthan could find no definite records, but it was reputed to have occurred near Broadway and Tenbury Wells in the early part of the nineteenth century. Certainly, the species was more widely distributed in the Midlands during the last century, with breeding records from Cannock Chase, and casual sightings elsewhere. Nationally the decline has mirrored the disappearance of it's favoured lowland heath habitat. Being a partially migratory Mediterranean species, cold winters such as those in 1947 and 1962-3 have decimated the population in the past. Enter global warming, or perhaps simply the lucky fluke of a consistent run of very mild winters for over a decade. The result has been an enormous increase in Dartford Warbler numbers on the heaths of southern England. With no room at home, young birds have been forced to disperse widely in the hope of finding new habitat. In Worcestershire this has resulted in the discovery of a single wintering bird on the Lickeys in 1995, and on Castlemorton Common in March 1997. Two problems remain. Do we have the habitat, and will the climate remain mild enough to allow sufficient young birds to survive the winter. In the first instance the answer could be yes. Very little lowland heath remains, but Castlemorton Common, Hartlebury Common, and several similar areas still survive in the county. What a coup it would be if the species did recolonise. The climate of course is the fly in the ointment. It could only take one really bad winter to blow away all thoughts of a return. We can only wait and hope.
Our final species is surely a long shot. The Corncrake was once a common bird throughout the Midlands, and Worcestershire was no exception. But the gradual intensification of agriculture towards the end of the last century began to threaten the species. Since 1900 the accelerated introduction of effective pesticides has seen a reduction in the food supply (which has affected many species) coupled with a change in farming techniques which has robbed the Corncrake in particular of a safe environment in which to breed. Eventually banished mainly to offshore Scottish islands, the species survival as a British species seemed in threat. Recently however,an RSPB led initiative to pay crofters to farm in a way which is sympathetic to Corncrakes has arrested the decline, and the species is even increasing in some places. True, there is little real evidence of any range expansion, but being a migratory species, the potential exists for birds to stop almost anywhere. Isolated breeding attempts could occur in any county, so why not Worcestershire? In 1997 there were reports of calling Corncrakes in both Warwickshire and Worcestershire, so who knows what the future may hold. Maybe set-aside could provide the answer. Certainly the Corncrake's future is inextricably linked to the agricultural practices pursued by farmers, and these are themselves dictated by the policies of central government and the EU. Watch this space for future developments.
|Harbird R E & Gribble F C (1998) Nightjars and other Breeding Birds of Cannock Chase. in prep.
||Harrison G et al (1982) The Birds of the West Midlands.
||Harthan A J (1947) The Birds of Worcestershire
||Westwood B (1996) The Return of the Raven. Worcestershire Wildlife News April 1996 no 75, p16
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