Exploring Britain’s bird decline

You can forgive those Brits who forget they live on an island. Motorways, next-day delivery and WiFi keep all UK residents away from the physical margins of their country, but the limits of geography are at the heart of a rhapsodic book that charts the stunning declines of the native birds of the British Isles .

Looking for one last song is the first book by Patrick Galbraith, the publisher of Shooting times, the UK’s most widely circulated hunting and shooting publication. This earthy travelogue transports readers to misty moors, windswept coasts and balmy fields across Britain as Galbraith pursues herds in total trouble.

It takes us to the storm-battered headlands of northern Scotland that no longer scream and moan with kittiwakes. The dainty gulls are disappearing as shifting ocean currents carry sand eels, the obligate food of these cliff-nesters, away from the coast. Further south, Europe’s largest capercaillie, the royal capercaillie, is barely found in the once forested uplands of gnarled Scots pine. Wind-leaning mature trees, essential for predator-avoiding roosts, have been replaced by open heathland or upright-growing pines of well-maintained plantations.

In East Anglia, ravenous muntjac deer, whose ancestors were brought from India by Victorian sportsmen, destroy the tangled brambles whose nightingales have serenaded poets and ploughmen for centuries. Even the ground-nesting corncrake, which for generations of Hebrideans signaled a seasonal change, is disappearing from stone-walled crofts as tractors increasingly take over haymaking on the coast west of Scotland and the barrier islands. The enigmatic corncrakes calling out the night were once a signal for fishermen to repaint their boats; the fish would soon be in.

But while these and other birds – the water-wading bitterns, the patrolling harrier, the romantic dove – have come to represent British tradition and consistency, their disappearance represents more than the loss of feathers and songs. As Galbraith poignantly describes in each chapter, the astonishing decline of sentinel bird species represents nothing less than the loss of British identity.

“When birds disappear, a place changes and people change too,” writes Galbraith, whose book is less about these vanishing birds and more about the people whose lifelong work is fighting to keep them in the skies above. of rural Britain. This is not a clinical ornithological autopsy. Rather, it is a series of intimate portraits of remarkable people for whom birds represent a personal and cultural identity.

Galbraith writes about Graham Denny, a gruff Suffolk farmer whose love of doves sparked the restoration of ragged hedgerows and field borders on his 200-acre farm. It introduces us to Luke Steele, a tattooed animal rights activist who served time in prison for disrupting grouse hunting and sabotaging research labs. Steele is now tagging harriers with radio transmitters to monitor their plight around commercial grouse hunting estates, trying to prove game wardens are still killing raptors, even after the Wildlife and Countryside Act passed. made this practice illegal.

We meet the earnest inhabitants of Manchester who watch over the nests of lapwings amid the housing estates built on the drained and refilled tides. Lapwing populations plummeted with the drying up of marshes and with the widespread use of insecticides that killed off crop-damaging leatherjackets, the main food source for insect-eating birds.

“I think they should almost be our national bird,” one lapwing enthusiast told Galbraith. “I just think they can bridge the urban and the rural. They want moorland, wasteland and farmland, but I’ve even seen them roost on B&Q’, Britain’s Home Depot. In many ways Galbraith’s book does just that, connecting urban and rural bird enthusiasts, but along the way it tells the stories of a nation in slow and deliberate transition away from the countryside.

Galbraith writes with an intimacy and tenderness that connects readers to the birds through their eccentric defenders. We follow Galbraith’s discovery of a large leather-bound book that contains an estate’s gambling records. In October 1910 he recorded a bag of 114 black grouse, probably the largest one-day catch in Britain. The 6,000 surviving pairs of native grouse in the UK owe their presence to people like Patrick Laurie. He is slowly restoring the moorland by grazing native cattle that select grasses that can choke out the native heather and barberry, two essential components of the black grouse’s diet.

Galbraith is an unexpectedly kind host. Readers of his publication could be seen as accelerators of bird loss in Britain. Wild bird diversity is lower on grouse-managed estates than on nearby lands that aren’t managed for high-volume commercial filming, a situation that suggests to regulators game wardens are illegally killing predatory birds. Lead shot poisoning has also been identified as a cause of bird mortality.

Still Shooting times subscribers also represent rural Britain and are stewards of the vast majority of remaining bird habitat in the UK. Galbraith’s book translates environmental awareness into language that hunters and shooters, who might take it to read about grouse and partridge conservation, can understand. For ornithologists interested in learning more about the fate of nightingales and corncrakes, Galbraith offers a reality check suggesting that as rural subdivisions proliferate and farms become larger and more mechanized, estates managed for grouse will also be sanctuaries for thrushes and kestrels.

For American readers, who still imagine a country with a wide and largely empty western border, Galbraith’s book is a reminder of the tyranny of borders. Britain simply has no more room and its waterfronts are real. As the habitat of the lapwing dries up and shrinks, the birds can only move so far on the coast. Doves wintering in Morocco must have suitable summer habitat in Essex. Grouse cannot fly over the North Sea to pioneer new blankets in Sweden.

In America, we still have room and time to conserve our declining species. Our own endangered sage grouse can benefit from the same in-depth knowledge that informs black grouse conservation in southern Scotland. The loss of our bobwhite quail can be slowed down by employing the same disorderly farming practices that benefit the gray partridge in East Anglia. American readers should recognize the same dismal loss of our monarch butterfly that Galbraith details in those documenting the slow and inexorable extinction of Scotland’s capercaillie.

But reversing the declines requires careful listening, and that’s the great gift of Galbraith’s book. Hear as he does, an old keeper’s penchant for his starlings, and the yearning of Norfolk reed thatchers for the ‘velvety boom’ of fenland bitterns. Listen and be transported to the parts of Britain that are unquestionably worth saving.

This article was originally published in The viewerof the October 2022 global edition.

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