UK birds back from the brink

Throughout centuries human interference has had a substantial effect on bird populations. Many species became extinct in the UK before important schemes were put in place to bring them back from the brink, but now various populations are thriving.


Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)
Now a common species found throughout southern areas of Britain and Ireland, in a variety of habitats including estuaries, river banks and marshes, it is hard to imagine areas of habitat without the familiar white shape of a little egret in view. It is no secret however that this bird was exploited for its beautifully white feathers to adorn women’s hats during the 19th century. It wasn’t however just egrets being killed for their feathers, with great crested grebes as well as foreign birds, such as birds of paradise, at risk. It was eventually recognised that this act was barbaric and unnecessary, with groups such as the Society for the Protection of Birds, now known as the RSPB, being formed in 1889 to discourage these activities. 100 years later in 1989 little egret numbers increased during the autumn, with a pair nesting in Britain in 1996 and a year later in Ireland. Now the egret’s population has recovered in the UK with figures from the RSPB showing 660-740 breeding pairs and 4,500 overwintering birds.


Red Kite (Milvus milvus)
A well-known reintroduction success is that of the red kite. A once common species this bird of prey was persecuted, whether by being shot, poisoned or exploited by egg collectors, to the edge of extinction in the UK. During the start of the 20th century Wales was home to the only remaining birds and it became clear that red kites in Britain would not be able to naturally recolonise. 1986 saw the beginning of discussions to reintroduce the bird to the UK, with both the RSPB and NCC being involved. Overall 93 Spanish and Swedish kites were reintroduced to the UK, the first released in 1989 and the last in 1994. With the first stage of reintroductions dubbed a success, as breeding populations developed, further reintroductions across areas such as the East Midlands, more areas in Scotland and Yorkshire occurred. Birds released originated from varied populations such as those from south England or Germany. Currently the RSPB states there are around 1,600 breeding pairs in the UK. It is a real success story that the soaring figure of a red kite looking for carrion is once again a common sight in various areas.


Bittern (Botaurus stellaris)
A much admired bird, the Bittern can now be seen and heard at various reedbed reserves, with RSPB Minsmere holding a good population. In the past however bittern were not faring so well and in 1886 were extinct in the UK. Threats from persecution, and drainage, which altered their specialist reedbed habitat, devastated the bittern’s population. The 20th century saw the slow recovery of the bittern as in 1900 they returned and the population size increased, with approximately 80 booming males present during the 1950s. In spite of this recovery, the success was short lived as by 1997 the population had declined again to only 11 booming males. The specific requirements of this species to survive, including appropriate reedbed habitat to nest in which supports prey species and is well connected, meant that they were vulnerable. Now however their requirements are more understood so traditional management techniques are used on many reserves to maintain favourable habitat for this species. For a bird whose population nearly fell to single figures the success of management has meant that, according to the RSPB, the population now consists of around 80 booming males and approximately 600 overwintering birds. Although the population has now increased, future threats such as climate change may influence bittern populations putting it once again at risk, so it is important to consider all future threats when implementing strategies to help prolong the survival of the bittern.


Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)
The characteristic sight of an osprey swooping and catching a fish from a reservoir or lake is one we are now able to enjoy at various sites across Britain, but in 1916 breeding ospreys were extinct. Throughout the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century ospreys were persecuted and severely targeted by egg collectors. However by 1954 they began to recolonise. By 1991 the population had risen to 71 pairs, with the RSPB figure now being 200-250 breeding pairs. The re-establishment of the osprey showed that by reducing damaging activities bird species can naturally recolonise areas, although some may need a helping hand, such as the ospreys reintroduced at Rutland Water.


Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta)
This characteristic black and white bird, which is now synonymous with the RSPB, can be seen across areas around the East Anglian and southern English coast. In the past however threats from egg collectors, hunters and drainage of land meant breeding avocets were extinct in the UK by 1840. During World War II however areas of the East Anglian coastline were flooded, unintentionally increasing favourable habitat for avocets. The Minsmere Level became an RSPB reserve in 1947, as it was the very year four avocet pairs were discovered. Now RSPB figures show a breeding population of 1,500 pairs and around 7,500 overwintering birds, with Minsmere still being an important site for this species.


Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)
The dark silhouette of a bird of prey gliding over reedbeds is often a marsh harrier, with around 320-380 breeding pairs in the UK (RSPB). However in 1971 only one pair remained at Minsmere, due to wetland drainage and persecution, especially of eggs. Thankfully appropriate protection of important habitat, reduced drainage and a reduction in toxic pesticides meant that this species was able to recover.


Chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax)
This striking member of the crow family last bred in England in 1952, with birds being shot, eggs collected and changes to farming methods, especially livestock, its chance of survival was slim. Cornwall however became its stronghold as it naturally recolonised the area in 2001, successfully breeding in 2002 on the Lizard Peninsula. RSPB figures show the population now stands at 250-350 breeding pairs throughout Great Britain, with the Isle of Man holding 120-150 breeding pairs.


White-tailed Eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla)
A bird which once bred in Scotland, Ireland and England the white-tailed eagle is the biggest bird of prey in the UK and an impressive sight with a wingspan of over 2m. Persecution once again was the reason for their rapid decline during the 19th century as they were viewed as a threat to livelihoods by gamekeepers, sheep and fish farmers. Egg collection was also a problem. By around 1918 this species was extinct in Britain, with the final bird being shot in Shetland. 1975 saw the start of a reintroduction programme involving the RSPB and NCC, with Norwegian birds reintroduced onto the Isle of Rum. 1985 was an important year which saw the success of a breeding pair. Now through population increase and further reintroductions the RSPB states the population as 37-44 breeding pairs. Although this species is still on the UK red list, it has increased considerably for a bird once persecuted to extinction in the UK.


Overall the persecution of birds and destruction of habitat has seen many species become extinct in the UK. However by stopping damaging activities, increasing favourable habitat and reintroducing individuals, populations of species are able to recover.

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