Choughs (pyrrhocrax graculus) pair in flight at dusk, South Stack RSPB reserve, Wales

Bringing choughs back to Cornwall

Early in the spring of 2001, there was a small influx of wild choughs along the south coast of England, from Portland in Dorset to the Isles of Scilly; a group of three took up residence on the Lizard.

Breeding success

The origin of these wild birds has been the subject of much debate, but we now know they came from Ireland.

In 2002, two of the birds raised young, the first in Cornwall in more than 50 years. Since then, this pair have nested successfully each year - raising 44 youngsters, many of which are now to be found on the Lizard or Land's End peninsulas. 2013 will be their 12th breeding season

A milestone was reached in 2006 when a second pair (a male offspring of the Lizard pair, and an incoming wild female) successfully bred raising three young. 

In 2008, another pair successfully raised young in West Penwith, the first time choughs have bred here in 150 years. 

Since 2002, 88 chicks have fledged from Cornish nests. 

Not all young choughs can be expected to survive, as the mortality rate can be quite high for choughs. Despite this, these Cornish pioneers are faring as well as their cousins in Wales or Brittany.

Behind the scenes, work is continuing to encourage farmers to manage suitable habitat around the coast for choughs.

Farming for choughs

Choughs may not look like typical farmland birds, but in the UK, they depend upon management of coastal cliffs and slopes and adjacent farmland to survive.

Choughs are specialists; they feed on invertebrates, which they typically collect on or just below the soil surface. Even with their long curved bills, choughs cannot access the soil through thick vegetation, so grazing along the coastal fringe helps to keep the vegetation structure open and thus accessible.

Unfertilised grass fields, stubble fields and areas of exposed cliff slopes are all part of a good habitat mosaic that provides ideal foraging opportunities for choughs.

An important food supply, especially for young choughs, is the invertebrates found in decomposing cowpats. Some chemicals used in worming treatments for cattle contain avermectins, which render cowpats sterile and useless for choughs. Alternative wormers are available, or treated animals can be put onto fields that choughs do not use.

Farmers are very supportive and want to help choughs return to their former haunts and an increasing network of coastal sites is being grazed around Cornwall's coast. Grazing is not just good for choughs; it helps butterflies, plants and insects too.

If you farm along the coast in the southwest and would like advice on management or how agri-environment schemes may help birds and other wildlife on your farm, please contact Claire Mucklow, Cornwall Projects Manager for more information.

Paul St Pierre

Conservation Officer, RSPB
01736 362979