Cornish choughs move inland

Cornish choughs move inland

Cornish chough and cow pat. Image by Adrian Langdon

For the first time since their return to Cornwall’s coastline, Cornish choughs have been seen on a daily basis on some of Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s inland nature reserves in Penwith. This shows that pasture restoration and conservation grazing can pay huge dividends for nature conservation, and that choughs are beginning to flourish in Cornwall once more.

Since going completely extinct in Cornwall during the mid-20th century, it wasn’t until 2001 that a small group of three birds arrived on the Lizard and took up residence. Two of these birds formed a pair and produced three young in 2002, the first choughs to be hatched in the wild in Cornwall in over 50 years. Since then, conservationists have been working hard to protect these birds and give them the best chance to flourish in Cornwall again.

As suitable habitats are restored, particularly through carefully managed grazing, chough numbers have been increasing along Cornwall’s coastline. However, it is only recently that Cornwall Wildlife Trust have received reports of choughs being seen on a daily basis on their Penwith inland natures reserves Bartinney and Bostraze.

Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s West Cornwall Reserves Manager Nick Marriott said:

“For choughs to be coming inland to our reserves is a first – and really exciting, as it shows how well they are doing. Their presence reflects the richness of our nature reserves for wildlife.

“The choughs have been regularly spotted feeding in the pastures. We know from surveys that these grasslands are particularly rich in dung beetles which in turn feed on the cow pats at both our Bartinney and Bostraze Reserves.

“At these reserves, we practice conservation grazing, which is the use of livestock where the primary objective is to manage a site for wildlife, meaning the cattle are free to roam and have a natural, organic diet free from wormers, which enables the dung beetles to thrive.”

Cornish chough feeding on cow pat. Image by Adrian Langdon

Cornish chough feeding on cow pat. Image by Adrian Langdon

In past centuries, choughs are likely to have ventured inland to close-cropped pasture as a useful additional foraging ground when coastal conditions were rough.

Sadly, Victorian egg and pet bird collectors, an overgrowth of lush vegetation around Cornwall’s shores often due to lack of grazing, pesticide treatment of cattle which poisoned insects feeding on cowpats, and toxic seed treatments all played their part in the choughs’ later decline.

Part of the highly intelligent crow family, shiny black and easily identified by their red bills and legs, choughs feel most at home on a mosaic of open, exposed short grassland. This terrain, typical of grazed clifftops, is ideal for their long, narrow curved bills, used to probe for insects such as ants and beetle grubs.

Cornwall Birds Chough Project Coordinator Hilary Mitchell said:

“The return of chough to Cornwall represents an amazing conservation success, with the population now well over 200 birds and a record 112 chicks fledging in 2023.

“Short-grazed habitat is essential, and its loss was one of the main reasons chough became extinct in Cornwall. Cornish chough often range quite widely, particularly in autumn and winter and it is really encouraging that some of our birds have identified the Cornwall Wildlife Trust Bartinney and Bostraze reserves as good feeding areas.

“The reserves are not far from the Penwith coast as the chough flies so will potentially have been important foraging areas for adults raising chicks in the spring. Food supplies over winter are equally important, ensuring adults and young birds survive and supporting our healthy and increasing population.”

Rare breed cattle at Bostraze. Image by Ben Watkins

Rare breed cattle at Bostraze. Image by Ben Watkins

Nick Marriott continued:

“Bostraze, in particular, is off the beaten track, providing undisturbed conditions for resident and migratory birds. Spotted flycatchers, reed buntings, grasshopper warblers, cuckoos, skylarks, stonechats and meadow pipits are among the birds that breed there.

“Bartinney, too, hosts many heath and grassland birds. Highlights have been churring nightjars, Cuckoos seen feeding on the furry caterpillars and reports of breeding Dartford warblers. 

“The choughs have become a regular feature at Bostraze this last summer. However, choughs feeding at Carn Glaze, which is part of the Bartinney complex, this winter is new. They have been spotted above the livestock barns there.

“The public are welcome to visit Bostraze and Bartinney all year round. They are not only new feeding grounds for choughs, but also sanctuaries for ground-nesting birds such as skylark and meadow pipit, alongside reptiles including adders. Therefore we ask that dogs are kept on leads to minimise disturbance.”

Ongoing sensitive land management of farmland and protected areas should ensure that the people of Cornwall can enjoy increasing sightings of Cornish choughs into the future.

Sunset at Bartinney nature reserve

Sunset at Bartinney nature reserve. Image by Ben Watkins