The Thurlows

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Nature Notes 2020

January 2020: The revenge of the persecuted

I saw something by a Suffolk road the other day that would have been inconceivable only 20 years ago.  There were three scavengers contesting a road-kill.  The first was a buzzard, once common throughout Britain, but after relentless persecution by gamekeepers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries its range had become restricted to Wales and the West of England; later attempts to recolonise were further restricted by the deadly effects of myxomatosis in the 1950s (so decimating its staple prey of rabbits) and by the impacts of organochlorine pesticides in the 1950s and 1960s (from which all raptors suffered by being at the end of the poisoned food-chain, as exposed in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring of 1962).  It wasn’t until 1999 that the buzzard was finally re-instated as a Suffolk breeding bird and now they are a familiar sight again. Indeed, they have now overtaken kestrels as Britain’s commonest raptor.

The second scavenger was a red kite, a similar story, though a more extreme one.  In the Middle Ages they were protected by Royal Decree as they kept the city streets free of carrion and rotting food. But from about 1600 they were persecuted as inimical to game interests, and by the mid-twentieth century the remnant Welsh population had been reduced to just a handful of pairs.  They were finally rescued by a large-scale re-introduction programme in the 1990s that has seen them spread back to many of their old haunts, with the difference that they haven’t (yet) become city scavengers again, thanks no doubt to improved public sanitation.  

The third bird in my little tableau was a raven. This charismatic corvid, the much larger relation of the carrion crow, has been slower to return, after an even longer period of absence.  The last breeding record in Suffolk until 2018 was in 1869 and it was virtually unseen in the county throughout the twentieth century.  Now at last they are moving back eastwards across England; occasional sightings are being reported here and there and one or two pairs are breeding again in the county.  Ravens of course are birds of myth and legend - the first bird to be sent out by Noah from his Ark and the traditional Guardians of the Tower of London, whose departure would presage the fall of England.

All these three species are now protected by law and it was wonderful to see them together in one spot. But I now need to identify the road-kill they were feeding on to complete this story.  It was a pheasant, one of the many we see killed by cars at our road-sides every day.  Some 60 million (yes, 60,000,000) of these non-native birds are released annually into the British countryside so that they can be shot, and it was mainly for the protection of this (scarcely wild) human quarry that the three native species above were systematically slaughtered for so long.  Perhaps what I witnessed, therefore, was an ironic historical revenge of a kind?


Jeremy Mynott

16 January 2020


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