Following a huge historic decline, chough populations are showing signs of recovery. However, the RSPB is urging government to develop agri-environment policies to secure suitable grazing management for choughs.
These striking black birds with red beaks are members of the crow family and in the past, especially during the 19th century, their numbers declined because they were shot as pests. Once the chough had become rare, their eggs became attractive to egg collectors. Even now choughs are persecuted – sometimes as they are mistaken for other birds in the crow family – and egg theft still takes place.
Changes in farming seem to have contributed to the decline in some areas. Choughs need enclosed nest sites and well grazed cliff slopes or hillsides to feed on. Livestock has been moved away from some of these areas, which leads to the vegetation becoming too tall for the birds to feed. Some of these grassy clifftops are now used for arable cropping.
What choughs need
Over the last 10 years choughs have been studied to see what they eat and where they prefer to feed. We found that choughs take invertebrates from, or just below, the surface and that they prefer to feed in very short vegetation with bare areas.
Choughs are found predominantly on western coasts. 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.
The RSPB is also involved with protecting isolated populations in Cornwall and Northern Ireland, and is helping to find out more about chough feeding habits on the Isle of Man to secure their future.
Different approaches to managing the land for choughs are being taken in different places in the UK. Some management is geared towards providing nesting sites, which are usually ledges on cliffs or in caves, and the lofts of derelict buildings.
Other work is to ensure there are places for choughs to feed, by using livestock to graze the land. This also benefits other species: the bare soil that results from grazing may benefit insects such as the hornet robber fly, and on machair in the Western Isles of Scotland, wading birds breed on chough feeding habitat.
Government and EU funding in Wales has enabled the RSPB to work with landowners to provide suitable habitat for choughs in 18 key areas, mainly coastal, and in the west of the country. In Scotland, a government-funded scheme has secured agreements with landowners to provide suitable management for choughs, such as winter grassland grazing by livestock.
There are good reasons for optimism: chough numbers have increased over the last 20 years and birds have recolonised sites from which they had previously disappeared. In Cornwall, a pair of choughs has bred successfully since 2002, after half a century of absence. Volunteers watch the site 24-hours a day during the incubation stage to protect it from egg thieves, and large numbers of visitors enjoy seeing these birds from a public viewpoint.
Choughs have also returned to Northern Ireland. There, the RSPB works closely with local farmers and the Environment and Heritage Service, to manage the grazing to benefit choughs within the Antrim Coast, Glens and Rathlin Island Environmentally Sensitive Area.
National surveys, held every five years, show that the numbers of choughs have increased since 1982 in most parts of the UK
The prospects for choughs are better than for several decades, with birds breeding in all four countries of the UK. The UK and Isle of Man hold the majority of the northwest European breeding population. The RSPB is providing suitable conditions for choughs on its nature reserves, including Rathlin Island, in Northern Ireland, which we hope they will recolonise.
Farmers, using agri-environment schemes, have the potential to encourage further increases in numbers. However, to ensure this recovery continues, it is essential that grazing is maintained in coastal areas to keep the land suitable for choughs to find food. The RSPB is providing advice on the development of agri-environment schemes, such as Tir Gofal, for Wales, and other European funding schemes. We are also urging the Countryside Council for Wales to consider designating key chough areas as Special Protection Areas.
Thanks to farmers and landowners across the UK who have supported our work to manage coastal and hill land for choughs. Also to: The Welsh European Funding Office, Countryside Council for Wales and Enfys, for funding chough work in Wales. Other key partners in Wales are Snowdonia and Pembrokeshire National Parks, Pembrokeshire’s Living Heathland project and Ceredigion County Council. Scottish Natural Heritage and Heritage Lottery Fund for funding chough management in the Hebrides. The Manx Government for financial support for chough studies on the Isle of Man, and Manx Atlas for their administrative support. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in Northern Ireland, in partnership with the NI Chough BAP Group. Monitoring chough breeding in England, and favourable habitat management of coastal habitats in Devon and Cornwall, is part of Action for Birds in England, a conservation partnership between English Nature and the RSPB.
What can I do?
Get close to choughs at one of our Date with Nature events across the UK
Last modified: 21 September 2005