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Conservation Success Stories

by Steve Portugal

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.

Another bird 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.

Other birds 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.

The 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.

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Steve 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.