Providing correct habitat is key for bird conservation

In Sussex, UK, a nice bit of successful bird conservation is taking place. It concerns the butcher bird (or butcherbird) – the red-backed shrike – which was abundant across England and Wales in the 19th century. Pressure from egg collectors and intensified agricultural practices caused numbers to decline from the early 1900s and the last breeding pair was recorded in 1988. Essentially farming led the decline of the butcher bird in the UK.

Red-backed shrike
Red-backed shrike, Butcherbird or butcher bird. Image: MikeB using Canva.

Ben Taylor has a farm in Sussex not far from the sea – not far from Brighton and if the plan works well his farm will help bring back this species of bird which was driven to extinction in the UK.

It’s about the size of a house sparrow. It’s name comes from the fact that it uses its hooked bill to catch crickets, beetles and sometimes small birds which it has the habit of impaling on thorns and barbed wire creating a kind of larder.

Location of Ilford Estate:

Taylor is the managing director of the Ilford Estate, near Lewes in East Sussex. He said that:

“The work we are doing generating the right habitats for shrike benefits the whole assemblage of farmland birds. We’ve already seen corn bunting and skylarks. You provide the habitat and it’s surprising how quickly they come back.”

Ben Taylor

Habitat loss is probably the single greatest threat for the survival of hundreds of thousands of animal species. And it comes about because of human activities.

The project is backed by Sir Charles Burrell and Isabella Tree. For their part, they’ve transformed the Knepp Estate (not far from the Ifford Estate) from an unproductive farm to a wonderful rewilding movement. One reason for its potential in being a conservation successes is that the UK government introduced biodiversity policies.

The scrubland on Taylor’s 1,200-hectare farm is on the edge of the most marginal land which has been turned over to wildflowers. It’s been paid for by the above-mentioned policy which requires housebuilders to help increase available habitats for wildlife.

The rolling hills in this part of the Ilford Estate have lots of mature scrub. The shrike need the scrub but it is needed at several different stages of growth which is why the area looks messy. It’s been recently hacked down by a tree shear-equipped digger which appears to have replicated what an elephant might have done hundreds of thousands of years ago in Europe when the straight-tusked elephant roamed the continent. Like other big herbivores they would have broken up woodland allowing scrub species such as blackthorn and hawthorn to grow which is the habitat of the butcher bird.

The red-backed shrike needs “extensive, low-input agricultural grazed land, with scrub and hedgerows and diversity to support lots of insect populations.” Those are the words of Adam Vaughan, the environment editor of The Times.

Ben Taylor said that “Nature recovery is really expensive to deliver”. For Isabella Tree whose work at Knepp Estate will be aired at cinemas in the film Wilding the heavy price of nature recovery is worth it. She added that “We’ve seen at Knepp how powerful the return of charismatic species can be. Red-backed shrike can help us change our mindset. They can shift the mood from despair and anxiety about our countryside’s catastrophic losses into a mood of energy optimism and action.”

RELATED: Major success for barn owl conservation in the UK

The term “butcherbird” can refer to two different groups of birds:

  • Shrikes (Lanius species): These birds are found in Eurasia and Africa and are only distantly related to the Australian butcherbirds. They share the gruesome habit of impaling their prey on thorns or similar sharp objects, which is how they earned the name “butcherbird.”
  • Australian Butcherbirds (Cracticus species): These are songbirds closely related to the Australian magpie. There are six or seven species of Australian butcherbirds, with the most common being the pied butcherbird (Cracticus nigrogularis). Australian butcherbirds are also insectivores for the most part, but will also eat small lizards and other vertebrates. They get their name from their similar habit of impaling their prey on thorns, spikes or crevices. They use these larders to store food for later consumption or to attract mates.

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Post Category: Birds > conservation