Deer to blame for the decline of England's nightingales

A A A

Nightingales are disappearing from Britain because deer are eating the woodland undergrowth the birds need for nesting, a new study has shown. It is a significant breakthrough in understanding why numbers of the renowned songbird are rapidly falling.

Between 1994 and 2007, nightingale numbers in England – the bird is absent from Scotland and Wales – dropped by 60 per cent, and its range shrank towards the South-east, with concentrations limited to Kent, Sussex, Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk. The bird has vanished from many places where it was formerly loved for its remarkable song, which is sung in the dark and which has been celebrated in literature for thousands of years.

Researchers have suspected that one cause of the decline of the nightingale might be the destruction of woodland undergrowth – the nightingale's key habitat – by browsing deer whose numbers in Britain have increased in recent years. The prime culprit may be the muntjac – or barking – deer, a recently introduced species which is capable of breeding all the year round and which has no natural enemies. The animals' browsing is causing major changes in the structure of woodland vegetation, especially of the "understorey" of shrubs and bushes, which is, in effect, being eaten to bits.

The link between deer browsing and the decline of the nightingale has been established by Chas Holt, a doctorate student at the University of East Anglia who is working for the British Trust for Ornithology. His research showed that nightingales in a wood spent most of their time in a tiny part of the woodland from which deer had been excluded, thus preventing them from browsing the undergrowth. Mr Holt radio-tagged nightingales in Bradfield Woods in Suffolk and established paired plots of woodland, half with deer allowed in, and half with them kept out. He found that the density of nightingales was 15 times greater in the deer-free areas.

"The study provides compelling evidence that increasing deer pressure can have a major effect on local nightingale populations, and potentially those of other woodland species too," Mr Holt said. "Deer can reduce the suitability of woodland by eating the low vegetation that forms a critical part of the nightingale's habitat. When added to the other pressures being faced by migratory birds, it is not surprising that population levels of some species are falling rapidly."

Nightingales are one of a number of migratory birds which fly to England in the spring after spending the winter in Africa and whose numbers are rapidly declining. Those species include the turtle dove, the spotted flycatcher, the wood warbler and the cuckoo. Scientists believe they may all be facing problems in their wintering grounds in Africa and on their annual migrations of thousands of miles.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Operations and Administration Support Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading Solar P...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Support Specialist

£18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This organisation is changing the way at...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Web Designer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Web Designer is required to join a f...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Business Development Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to develop an ...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor