Changes in Bird Populations

by Norman Jackson

All images © Paul Harris. Banner image: Yellow Wagtail

General decline in many bird species

In many parts of Britain there is a general decline in the populations of many bird species. According to a DEFRA report published in November 2020, over the past 50 years, the abundance of Woodland Birds has fallen by 27%, Water Birds by 12% and, most alarming of all, Farmland Birds which overall have fallen by 57%.

Some species have suffered more than others, the numbers of Yellow Wagtails for example are 97% down on what they were in 1970. Others though have grown significantly, such as Greylag Geese, whose numbers are now over 1100% higher than they were in 1970. A fact that is quite evident in the fields around Ullswater.

Greylag Geese

Changes in agriculture are the primary cause, such as the loss of hedgerows, improved drainage, increases in the use of farm chemicals, such as pesticides (remember the devastating effect of DDT on Raptor populations, until it was totally banned in 1986).

Decline in Ullswater's Birds of Prey

Some historical sources provide a more local perspective, particularly for birds of prey. In 1709, Ullswater was described as a stronghold for the Red Kite but it was persecuted to extinction. The last one of Lakeland stock was shot in 1840 and donated to Carlisle Museum. White-tailed Eagles and Golden Eagles also soared over these fells until around 1790.

Red Kite

In his book ‘A Survey of the Lakes of Cumberland, Westmorland and Lancashire’, by James Clarke published in 1789, he writes on pages 29/30 (88/89 in pdf) about how the Church-Warden at Gowbarrow would pay the following bounty for the killing of these ‘Noxious Vermin’ - Fox (10 Groats), Fox-Cub (3 Groats), Pine Marten (3 Groats), Eagles (3 Groats), Wild Cat (3 Groats) and a Raven (1 Groat). During Whitsun Week in 1759, he paid bounties for 15 Foxes, 7 Badgers, 12 Wild Cats and 9 Martens, together with a prodigious number of Eagles and Ravens.

W R Philipson, the Headmaster of Patterdale School, was a very enthusiastic bird watcher and kept detailed notes of his walks around the dale during the 1920’s to the 1940’s. He eventually published a book in 1948 entitled ‘Birds of a Valley’. The style of the book is narrative, not scientific, but it does reveal some interesting details that we can relate to the present day. He comments on the rarity of the Magpie (which it still is), the total absence of Jays (reasonable numbers now) and Starlings being quite common (now a definite rarity in the dale). Kingfishers also seemed to be a more frequent sight on Goldrill Beck, as were Peregrine Falcons on the crags.

By Norman Jackson

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