Sometimes it can get a little depressing when all the news about the state of the environment and Britain's countryside is bad; farmland devoid of birdlife, wetlands being drained and forestry being cut down. But it's not all doom and gloom, over the last decade many threatened species have been able to make successful comebacks, thanks mainly to the help of conservation charities and organisations such as English Nature, the RSPB and hundreds of dedicated volunteers from estate agents to students to housewives and the police.
Raptors in particular
have been the subject of many conservation efforts. Perhaps the
most familiar story is that of the Red Kite. Once a common site
over Britain's cities until the 18th century, it was persecuted
almost to extinction, leaving only a small relic population high
in the mountains of Central Wales. At one stage, the population
was estimated only to be five pairs, and in the first decade of
the twentieth century only twenty young were fledged, of which four
were shot. Over the next thirty years there was a small population
increase, but a further spread was limited by continuing nest robberies
and illegal poisoning. It wasn't until the late 1970's that Red
Kite numbers began to increase and spread from their Welsh stronghold.
This increase had come about as a result of increased security at
nest sites to prevent robberies and continued consultations with
farmers regarding how they manage their land. By 1989, these efforts
had brought about a population of over 69 breeding pairs. With added
protection, the Red Kites were doing a sterling job of re-colonising
regions they'd inhabited previously, but it was decided they may
need a little help in re-colonising those areas that were situated
a bit further away from the core population in Wales. That's when
the Red Kite re-introduction programme began, starting in 1989 with
two pairs of Swedish birds, one pair in England, the other in Scotland.
The re-introductions were successful, and further re-introductions
took place in Yorkshire, Oxfordshire, The Chilterns and two more
sites in Scotland. Recent estimates quote the breeding population
as 139 breeding pairs in the Chilterns and Wiltshire alone. Sightings
of Kites are becoming more and more frequent, particularly in other
counties close to release sites such as Hampshire and Dorset, but
also as far away as Cornwall, Kent and Cheshire. So far, the Red
Kite has been an overall conservation success story.
of prey had an even sorrier tale; The White Tailed Sea Eagle became
completely extinct at the end of the 19th Century as a result of
poisoning, shooting and egg collectors. Over 100 eyries were known
in Britain and at least 50 in Ireland in the middle of the 19th
century. The last breeding record in England was from the Isle of
Wight in 1780, while they survived until 1898 in Ireland. The last
breeding record in Scotland was on the Isle of Skye in 1916.
Unlike the Red
Kite there was no core population from which birds could disperse
to re-populate areas they'd previously been found. Therefore re-introduction
was considered the only method by which the birds could re-colonise
the British Isles. Sites were carefully selected for re-introduction
to take place, typically sites where Sea Eagles had historically
bred. Scandinavian birds were flown to Scotland and a lengthy re-introduction
programme by the Nature Conservancy Council (using the young birds
from Norway) started in 1975. In the following ten years 82 young
eagles were released on the Isle of Rhum in the Inner Hebrides.
The programme culminated in successful breeding in 1985, since which
at least one pair has nested successfully every year. Protection
and surveillance of the nest sites is of extreme importance to prevent
illegal disturbance or nest robbing and all nest sites are a closely
guarded secret to minimise the danger of any theft. The population
is so small that any nest losses would have a direct impact on the
population. A further five years of introductions finishing in 1998
was considered necessary to boost the population. It is now believed
that the population is self-sustaining, and birds have been sighted
as far away as the Shetland and Orkneys as well as along the North
Scottish coast. Even though it took longer than the Red Kite, the
White Tailed Sea Eagle is slowly establishing itself once more as
breeding British bird, another conservation success story.
of prey that have found themselves benefiting from conservation
efforts include the now renowned Osprey, Hen and Marsh Harriers,
and the Golden Eagle, but birds of prey are not the only group of
birds that have been targeted in conservation campaigns.
Chough is another bird that suffered huge population decreases in
the twentieth century. In the UK the Chough used to be relatively
widespread, but by early 19th century it had vanished from inland
areas and was declining on the coasts. Habitat loss, combined with
indiscriminate persecution were the main reasons. The sharpest and
most sustained falls were 1860-1900, during which time persecution
by shooting and trapping continued and increased. With its increasing
rarity, it had attracted major interest from egg collectors and
specimen hunters by 1900. It became extinct in most of its range
in mainland England by turn of the century, and the last recorded
breeding attempt in England was in Cornwall in 1952. The numbers
continued to decline in the remaining strongholds until the 1980s,
when conservation efforts finally halted the decline. Methods applied
to attempt to halt the decline included providing artificial nest
sites, installing new nesting ledges and reducing the disturbance
at nest sites. Chough numbers have now increased along the Welsh
coast and the Isle of Ramsay, and on the Isle of Man. In the last
two years Chough's have returned to breed, naturally, to the Cornish
coast for the first time in 50 years, and there is excitement and
anticipation about the frequency of which individuals are now visiting
suitable areas of the Dorset coast.
A whole host
of other species, apart from the mentioned three, have responded
well to protection and suitable habitat management; Avocet, Woodlark,
Dartford Warbler, Goshawk, Corncrake and Bittern have all re-established
themselves as regular breeding members of Britain's Avifauna.
It just goes
to show that with the right knowledge and correct application of
that knowledge, it is possible to reverse population declines of
species that have suffered badly over the last 100 years.
Portugal has been birding for many years, previously worked
for the RSPB, and is hoping to start a PhD soon. He is currently
doing Farmland surveys for the BTO and RSPB.