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Tom Denney

This is a personal view of what I perceive has happened to birds and bird populations in Rudland from the mid-fifties until the present day. It is based on notes I made through the period 1955 to 1958 compared to notes made over the last four years.

Like many other teenagers in the fifties, my interest in birds started with egg collecting, but soon all my spare time was spent bird-watching, mostly in and around Rudland.  (For the purpose of this article, Rudland can be defined as the area within a three kilometre radius of Sykes House SE917664.) On my return to Rudland in 1998, I have continued birding, but not perhaps with the same intensity as when I was younger!

In any comparison between the fifties and now the weather may well play a part, but I have no early meteorological records. However, we all feel that winters are getting less severe, (I didn’t go to Gillamoor school for six weeks in the winter of ’47!), and summers are getting milder and wetter, for example – 42" of rain at Sykes in 2002.

How has this affected the arrival dates of some summer visitors to Rudland? For us at the moorland edge the first sign we look for is the return of the curlew with its characteristic call soon followed by its bubbling song. Little seems to have changed between the fifties and now, with arrivals expected in the first two weeks of March. Of the eight dates I have, the earliest is 4 March ’57 and ’58, latest 13 March in ’55 and ’56; the last four years have been 6/8/9 and 11 March. The swallow is another very visible summer migrant and they do appear to be arriving earlier with dates in the second week of April for three of the last four years, whereas all my records for the fifties are after 20 April.  Lastly, we all listen for the cuckoo, and I was brought up to expect it around 26 April, my father’s birthday. Seven of the eight records I have are all between 24 April and 1 May with the odd one out being 11 May ’57 – so no sign of earlier arrivals due to climate in this case, although cuckoos are now much scarcer than they were fifty years ago.

Again much has been written on the impact of agriculture on bird populations and although not as obvious as in the arable lowlands, significant changes have taken place on the traditional small moorland-edge mixed farms. Silage has replaced hay, no cereals are grown, milking cows are no more and sheep are the main product. However, the farming is still not very intensive and many birds seem to have adapted well to the changes. Peewits have no spring cereal to nest on but are doing well on moorland-edge grassland, as are snipe particularly where cattle are allowed to roam on wet intakes. Swallows have moved to new buildings when their previous nest sites have been in old buildings which have been improved. Pied wagtails, a common farmstead resident, also do not like improved buildings but will readily adapt to nest boxes as at Sykes.

Another country pursuit – shooting – continues to affect habitats and bird populations with the major change in the last fifty years being the increased popularity of pheasant shooting which now means that released birds are common in nearly all habitats, even on the high moor. Red-legged partridge are also being released. Maybe such large artificial numbers do have some impact on other ground nesting birds, and perhaps have contributed to the present scarcity of grey partridge – or is it just lack of cereal crops?

Official figures indicate that many well known birds have suffered significant population losses, but to the casual observer it is only when a species becomes scarce or disappears that a change is obvious. So what are the birds unlikely or less likely to be seen now on a spring or summer walk in Rudland? Redstarts and tree sparrows used to breed in our garden: not any more. Redstarts are scarce but still breed locally, but I do not know where the nearest tree sparrow colony is, although two winters ago we had a single bird visit the bird table on a couple of occasions. Pied flycatchers used to breed in the woods next to Hodge Beck, but the oaks were felled and the birds have gone and are much less common in the dales than they used to be. Whinchats and ring ousels no longer nest on our land and, although still in the area, are increasingly scarce on the moorland-edge they favour.

On the plus side, of course, the area has benefitted from the spread of species such as the collared dove, sparrow hawk, and siskin, and now, from time to time, it is good to see buzzards over a habitat which is surely ideal for them. A new small pond has brought moorhen to the area for the first time and little owl and nuthatch have spread up from the lowlands in small numbers – so it’s not all bad news.

Overall it looks as if there has been a negative impact on bird species over the fifty year period and perhaps this is to be expected in view of the environmental changes man has made both locally, nationally, and internationally. What may happen in future? It would be nice to think that local actions, such as stewardship work and less support for intensive agriculture may help, but looking at what is happening in general in Britain and reading of the situation in Africa where many of our summer visitors over-winter, perhaps we should not be too optimistic.

Tom Denney January 2003

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