Breeding again after 18 years: the bird that vanished from Britain's shores

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Michael McCarthy reports on a landmark moment for the red-backed shrike

A A A

Two small, very attractive birds, with black "masks" across their eyes and russet backs, perching on fence posts, barbed wire and branches, flicking their wings and tails before dashing off after passing beetles and bumblebees: that's what hope looks like.

Nobody thought they would come back. Just five years ago, the best and most comprehensive book on English birds said the species was "unlikely to breed here on a regular basis again". Yet there they were on the edge of a small valley in Dartmoor, two juveniles fresh from their Dartmoor nest and feeding up for their long migratory journey to winter in southern Africa: red-backed shrikes.

The announcement yesterday that Lanius collurio had bred again in Britain, 18 years after going extinct, delighted conservationists and birdwatchers. This is (or was) one of the most engaging of all our birds, an exquisite small predator, something like a falcon the size of a sparrow – a sparrow with a hooked beak and a ferocious intent.

Its fierce behaviour long ago gave it a country name, the butcher bird, for the red-backed shrike catches its prey items – beetles, caterpillars, lizards, small mammals and even other small birds – and then stores them in "larders" by impaling them on the spikes of a thorn bush or a barbed wire fence. The butcher bird was a part of rural folklore right across Britain, until a decline began in the middle of the 20th-century which accelerated through the 1970s and 1980s, with the last pair breeding in Norfolk in 1992.

It was widely assumed they were gone forever. Leading ornithologists Andy Brown and Phil Grice wrote in their authoritative Birds in England in 2005: "The prospects for any recolonisation look bleak."

But on Wednesday The Independent was invited to view the birds which have returned, at the secret breeding site where they have spent the summer, guarded 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in an operation involving several conservation organisations and coordinated by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

The adult male, resplendent in his grey-blue head which contrasts with his red-brown back and black face mask, appeared to have gone, to have left for winter quarters in sub-Saharan Africa; the adult female was also nowhere to be seen. But two of the three young birds they successfully raised were splendidly on view in the isolated scrubby valley with a small stream that has been their home, and to which – the hope is – they will return next year to breed themselves.

The birds were surveying their world from hunting lookout posts and then fluttering and swooping down on prey, with big black beetles being a favourite item: these were taken back to the perches and greedily torn apart, as the birds built up their fat and muscle reserves for the 5,000-mile flight which awaits them.

Watching them with Peter Exley and Kevin Rylands from the RSPB and Roger Smaldon from the Dartmoor Study Group was not only an intense pleasure in itself; it was to witness a triumph of active conservation. For perhaps more than any other British bird, the red-backed shrike has suffered at the hands of egg collectors.

Colourful and also highly variable, the eggs have always been prized by "eggers" and as the bird became rarer, so did their value to collectors; the fewer breeding shrikes there were in the 1980s, the harder the eggers tried to get them, often succeeding. Although the full reasons for the birds' disappearance are not known – one may be the disappearance of large insects from the countryside – it is almost certain that egg collectors had a hand in driving them to extinction.

Any returning birds would be targeted, of course – despite penalties which now include jail sentences, there are still enough egg collectors to drive the birds to extinction once again – and as soon as it was realised that a pair were present and nest-building, in late May, a protection operation began.

It involved RSPB staff and volunteers from the Dartmoor Study Group and the Devon Bird Watching & Preservation Society, who spent more than 2,600 hours constantly overlooking the nest. They were needed. Three men with criminal convictions for egg collecting approached the site, before being warned off; another man was discovered in hiding, trying to spot the nest (he fled through a peat bog when challenged, up to his knees in mud).

That the chicks eventually hatched, and safely fledged, was a major achievement for the volunteers. But perhaps it was an even greater achievement for the parent birds themselves, for they lost their first brood of chicks to marauding magpies in July, yet stoically started out again. "I saw them mate again, and begin nest building once more, on the same day," Mr Rylands said.

They need to be stoic in this world where the threats to so much of our wildlife continue, with farmland bird numbers, for example, down by 50 per cent in the last four decades, and still falling. Yet watching the young shrikes on Dartmoor, these brilliant birds that have come back from the dead in our country, there was an overwhelming sense of the resilience of living things, given half a chance, and a feeling that for all the threats, there is hope for our wildlife too.

A summer to remember

The breeding of the red-backed shrikes on Dartmoor crowns what has been a remarkable summer for rare and new breeding bird species in Britain, especially for long-legged water birds.

* Purple herons, more colourful but much shyer cousins of our own grey herons, bred successfully for the first time ever in Britain at the RSPB reserve in Dungeness in Kent. (They had tried and failed at Minsmere in Suffolk in 2007). The Dungeness birds have raised two chicks.

* Little bitterns, small members of the heron family, bred in Somerset, for only the second recorded time in Britain (the first occasion was in Yorkshire in 1984). These elusive birds nested at Ham Wall nature reserve and raised at least one chick.

* Spoonbills, large white wading birds with flat, "spatulate" bills, bred as a group at the Holkham National Nature Reserve in Norfolk, establishing the first colony of the birds in Britain for at least 300 years. Although there have been four cases of single pairs breeding, there has never been a group in modern times; at least six pairs nested, producing at least six young.

Travel
travel
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
Sport
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Travel
travel
News
Robyn Lawley
people
News
people
News
i100  ... he was into holy war way before it was on trend
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmThe film is surprisingly witty, but could do with taking itself more seriously, says Geoffrey Macnab
News
people
Life and Style
food + drinkVegetarians enjoy food as much as anyone else, writes Susan Elkin
Life and Style
lifeDon't get caught up on climaxing
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

PHP Developer - MySQL, RDBMS, Application Development

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: PHP Developer - MySQL, RDBMS, Applicatio...

SAP Business Analyst - Data Migration, £75,000, Manchester

£60000 - £75000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Senior SAP B...

SAP Data Migration Consultant, circa £65,000, Manchester

£55000 - £75000 per annum: Progressive Recruitment: Senior SAP Data Migration ...

SAP Data Migration Consultant, circa £65,000, Manchester

£55000 - £75000 per annum: Progressive Recruitment: Senior SAP Data Migration ...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star