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How many birds are on the slippery slope to extinction in the UK?

29 September, 2014 - 09:41 -- John Burton

I recently found a copy of Record Bags and Shooting Records by Hugh S Gladstone (1923) tucked away in my library.

Scanning through it gives an idea of the abundance of birds in former times. Some of the records are truly mind-boggling. In four hours in Dorset, 57 Corncrakes shot; 30 in one day on the Isle of Wight; between 1909 and1929 Mr D Darell shot 1,461.

Mr Noble of Henley-on-Thames killed 37 Stock Doves with three cartridges in 1879 (hard to believe!). At Holkham in Norfolk 1,215 hares were shot on one day, and in 1911 a total of 8,173 hares were killed. One hunter in the Orkneys in the winter of 1908/09 killed 2,344 Snipe and 411 Jack Snipe.

Is it any wonder that most of these species are now much rarer than they were a century ago? Combine the massive habitat losses that have occurred in Britain with the excessive hunting of the past, and it is perhaps remarkable that so much survives. But for how much longer?

There’s absolutely no room for complacency. The Passenger Pigeon was once probably the most abundant bird in the world, but once its population dropped to a certain level, it was doomed to extinction.

Last week, the BBC reported that two hen harrier chicks tagged with satellite transmitters by the RSPB have mysteriously disappeared. Named Sky and Hope, the two juveniles were some of the first Hen Harrier chicks to fledge in England since 2012. I can only hope that the other dozen or so fledged Hen Harrier chicks that are being monitored by the RSPB have a chance to grow to maturity.

Leaving aside the Hen Harrier, how many other bird species are already on the slippery slope to extinction?

As an aside, I might probably be more in favour of sport hunting were it not that so many of its supporters are so adamant that they are right – and that they automatically lump conservationists in with the anti-sport hunters.

As far as I am concerned there are two aspects to the argument: one the conservation impact of sport hunting and the other the ethical issue. As a conservationist I can accept some of the arguments in favour of sport hunting, but as a private individual, I have no time for it at all. It is unnecessary, and often cruel.

The argument that nature is also cruel, does not hold water with me at all. If you want the so-called joy of the hunt, take up wildlife monitoring with radio collars, mist-netting, camera-trapping or photography. All every bit as exciting, probably a bit more demanding - and with many positive benefits.

The conservation impact of grouse shooting was debated at Controversial Conservation with Chris Packham, an event held by World Land Trust on 2 September 2014. You can hear the full recording of the debate by clicking here » 


Submitted by Robert Burton on

The big decrease in bird numbers has taken place since the 1970s. I often make the point that, when considering what we have lost, people think back to the abundance of wildlife in the 1950s and 60s. Yet this was nothing like what had existed previously. The figures are unbelievable.
As John has pointed out previously, read WH Hudson and other nature writers to see what we are missing. One of my favourite anecdotes is the shooting party on the River Cam in 1843 that bagged 20-30 bitterns in a morning. Think of all the bitterns tucked safely among the reeds that were not shot! And there was the farmer on the River Welland in mid-18th century who employed a man to catch sticklebacks for manure. The man earned 4 shillings a day at ½ penny a bushel = about half million fish/day. So how abundant were kingfishers?
These are not exceptional figures, but were the norm. The land must have been able to support an incredible profusion of wildlife before it got drained, enclosed, ploughed etc

Submitted by John on

Thanks for this addition; it really is very scary indeed. I once had a hint of what it was really like, when back in the late 60s and early 70s I visited the Danube Delta of Romania. The fish life was staggeringly abundant. So were the birds, but even then I knew from reading the accounts of Crown Prince Rudolf (of Mayerling Fame) that this was nothing like what it had been a century earlier. Read about buffalo, read Mark Avery's latest about the Passenger Pigeon, read about the Springbok, read about Saiga antelope, read about whales when commercial whaling started, or cod in Canadian waters, and you start to realise that we are at the tail end of a massive wave of extinction. And they are just the big animals. A few of us naturalists who have read the early literature, understand this, but unfortunately most conservationists are too focused on the here and now to be interested in the historical context. I think if more interest was taken in natural history, with a capital H, there would be a better understanding of the crisis we are now living in. Writers like Matt Ridley, seem to think that because conservationists of the 1970s got the details wrong, and because we are still surviving despite human population growth, that all will be OK in the future. It is a failing of humans throughout history generally to have a world view that is framed by their own generation.

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