Last weekend seemed at last to herald spring after what seems the longest winter since 1963. That year I was birdwatching at Beddington Sewage Farm, in south London, and this last weekend one of my colleagues from that distant era, Jonathan Cooke was visiting.
We walked around Walberswick National Nature Reserve (NNR) and we talked about the changes we had seen: the near extinction of Yellow Wagtails in suburban London, the absence of the huge finch flocks that once occurred, the disappearance of more than a dozen breeding pairs of Red-backed Shrikes that occurred on Walberswick NNR until the 1970s.
It’s not all negative: back then there were only one or two pairs of marsh harriers breeding in East Anglia, and now there are dozens. Buzzards have returned, and Red Kites are on their way. And deer are everywhere. Back in the 1960s there were just a few red deer in nearby Dunwich Forest. Now Red Deer are very common, and there are Fallow Deer, Chinese Water Deer and Roe Deer, as well as Muntjac, which some would describe as now occurring in pest proportions.
In the 1960s Coypu were still abundant in Walberswick, but they were exterminated as they were considered pests. Wild Pigs (ie Boar) have been reported, and Badgers have recolonized much of East Anglia. And the plosive call of the Cetti’s Warbler is now heard from almost every clump of sallow in the reed beds. But the greatest success is probably the recolonisation by Otters – we even see their signs in our garden.
But all these successes hide the real disaster lurking in the background. Just as the suburban wagtails have disappeared, so have countless other birds once familiar.
Just 25 years ago Reed Buntings could be seen on farmland, Willow Warblers were abundant, Redstarts were not uncommon, and Wheatears were common nesting birds. And the Cuckoo could be heard almost everywhere. It was a sound I grew up with, even though I lived in suburban London.
Now I have not heard a Cuckoo away from a reed bed for three years. And that reminds me. Cuckoos are nest parasites, and each cuckoo laid a certain type of egg, and tended to parasitise a particular species. I remember, back in the 1950s poring over the cabinet of British birds’ eggs at the Natural History Museum, looking at eggs that mimicked Dunnocks, Redstarts, Sedge Warblers, Reed Warblers, Wagtails and many, many others. (There is an interesting article on the subject here.)
Numerous genetic races (arguably on their way to becoming separate species), have already become extinct, and others soon will be, largely unnoticed.