The RSPB is urging government to develop agri-environment policies to secure suitable grazing management for choughs.
Choughs in the UK
Following a huge historic decline, chough populations have recovered some of their former range in recent decades and numbers are largely stable.
They are now resident in all four UK countries and the Isle of Man, with the population at an estimated 394 breeding pairs.
This charismatic crow is mostly found on western coasts, and is very dependant upon grazing management to provide suitable foraging areas at a landscape scale.
Have numbers improved?
National surveys, held every ten years, show the numbers of choughs have increased since 1982 in most parts of the UK.
1982 - 142 | 1992 - 177 | 2002 - 212 | 2014 - 215
Isle of Man
1982 - 60 | 1992 - 77 | 2002 - 114 | 2014 - 118
1982 - 72 | 1992 - 88 | 2002 - 71 | 2014 - 53
1982 - 0 | 1992 - 0 | 2002 - 1 | 2014 - 7
1982 - 10 | 1992 - 2 | 2002 - 1 | 2014 - 1
Changing fortunes for choughs
These striking black birds with their crimson bills are members of the crow family.
In the past, especially during the 19th century, their numbers declined because they were highly persecuted. They were trapped and shot mistakenly as an agricultural pest (they’re not - in fact they're the reverse), by trophy hunters wanting specimens for glass cases.
They were also persecuted by egg collectors. Sadly some illegal egg collecting still happens, but thankfully most people love choughs and want to protect them.
Changes in management contributed to the decline in some areas where fewer grazing animals on cliffs and slopes meant less good habitat.
Decades of restoring grazing to areas where choughs had been lost, as well as maintaining good conditions where they had hung on has stabilised numbers. However, there are regional differences.
- In Scotland where choughs are now only found on the islands of Islay and Colonsay they are not faring so well, with numbers going down.
- In Pembrokeshire and Gower there are a few more pairs than 10 years ago, but inland pairs in Wales have mostly gone.
- In Cornwall,they had been absent for nearly 30 years, but since their natural recolonisation in 2001 (by Irish birds) the population is slowly growing.
- In Northern Ireland there is one pair on Rathlin Island, where hopefully numbers will increase in years to come.
What choughs need
For choughs to thrive they require management at a landscape scale. Most of the choughs breed on or close to the coast but there are also pairs inland particularly in Wales and the Isle of Man. In autumn and winter flocks roam over considerable distances to find food and are more likely to use inland and upland areas.
As primarily invertebrate feeders, choughs need access to the soil and a mosaic of vegetation with lots of short and open areas in which to feed. Grazing is crucial in keeping coastal and upland habitats in good condition for choughs.
Young choughs seek out the invertebrates in animal dung as an easy food source and in some areas they feed along the strandline on sand hoppers. During autumn and winter months, arable land is important for choughs where they eat grain and forage for invertebrates in the open soil.
They also need safe places to nest. Choughs use sea caves, old mine workings, abandoned buildings and even modern agricultural barns. In some areas, they use specially made nest boxes and ledges.
Working for choughs
Choughs have long held a fascination for people and there are experts and enthusiasts all over the UK and Isle of Man working for the choughs’ future security.
A focus for the RSPB, working with other conservation organisations and the government, is to ensure there is good habitat at the right scale in key areas. Agri-environment schemes are vital in supporting farmers to take on the challenge of grazing the marginal land choughs use.
Over past decades many studies and research by experts around the UK has helped understand what choughs need, particularly their feeding requirements and there are current projects that build on these past studies.
The Scottish Chough Study Group is researching the reasons for declines in the Islay population and the RSPB is undertaking research with Glasgow University which will help advise farmers on stock treatments that can effect the choughs’ invertebrate food supply.
Monitoring by the Manx Chough Project, the Pembrokeshire study group and the RSPB in Cornwall is furthering knowledge of choughs in these areas. The long running colour ringing project by chough workers in mid and north Wales shows how invaluable colour ringing is in furthering our knowledge on movements of birds and how they use the landscape.
There are choughs on a number of RSPB reserves including South Stack and Ramsey Island in Wales, Oronsay and Loch Gruinart, Smaull Farm, the Oa and Ardnave on Islay, Scotland and Porthgwarrra in Cornwall.
The UK and Isle of Man hold the majority of the northwest European breeding population (there are more than 50 pairs in Brittany and a project is reintroducing choughs back to Jersey).
Some of the UK populations are isolated so it is encouraging that through colour ringing and monitoring, choughs are known to be moving between countries - for example, Ireland to Cornwall, and Isle of Man to Wales. This will help with their genetic health and hopefully further natural recolonisation of the UK in future years.
We cannot be complacent though. Choughs are specialist feeders and are reliant on managed habitats to thrive, but pressures on land where they feed are increasing and can make things tough for choughs. Changes in agriculture and grassland management, reduced stocking rates and even abandonment can be a problem and in some areas we have dedicated RSPB staff working with farmers and agencies to solve these problems.
Our research alongside that of Chough Study Groups is increasing our pool of knowledge on food requirements, disease and stock management.
The RSPB is providing suitable conditions for choughs on its nature reserves and encouraging others who have land where there are choughs to do the same. Managing for choughs is very often good for other rare species too and where possible we ensure people can enjoy them all.
We acknowledge and thank all the farmers and landowners across the UK and Isle of Man who support choughs by managing coastal and hill land, and the many organisations and individuals that help to further and fund chough conservation throughout the UK.
The list of people working on behalf of choughs across the UK and Isle of Man is awe inspiring and extensive and although it is not possible to name everyone individually here, the groups which take on the major roles are: The Scottish Chough Study Group, the Manx Chough Project, Cross and Stratford (Mid/North Wales), Pembrokeshire Study Group, and the Cornwall Chough Conservation Network.