Friday, June 20, 2008


This is the Cornish Coat of Arms, apart from the obvious images of a fisherman and a tin miner the other prominent character in the centre is the Cornish Chough. The Chough, Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax with its jet black plumage and bright red legs and curved beak, is a member of the crow family. For many years it was a feature of the Cornish coastline and became known as 'Cornwall's bird,' hence it's pride of place on the coat of arms. However, by the early 1950's the Chough had completely disappeared from Southern England. A change in farming techniques meant that hardy grazing species were no longer farmed on the Cornish coast so the closely cropped grassland that the Chough favours to forage on, was a thing of the past. It was either left to grow wild which essentially means it was overrun with gorse and bracken or it was turned over to more intensive farming. This combined with the fact that as the Chough became more scarce, egg collectors and illegal hunters were all the more determined to 'bag' a specimen meant that very soon the symbol of Cornwall had been completely extirpated from Southern England.

As a child I can remember visiting various places where Choughs were kept in captivity and it was always with a tinge of sadness that we were told of their demise in the wild. For many years various conservation groups talked about projects to reintroduce the Chough to the Cornish coastline but first it would be necessary to recreate the suitable habitat that the birds needed. Farmers who owned land along the coast were encouraged to join the project and start grazing shetland ponies or highland cattle along the clifftops.

The sight of these wooly characters roaming the clifftops is a little disconcerting when hiking the coastal footpath but they seem reasonably happy to leave you alone just as long as you leave them alone! After several years of re-establishing the correct habitat for the Choughs the next step was going to be to reintroduce some captive bred individuals. But, as is so often the way, nature took things under control and suddenly in 2001 three Choughs appeared on the cliffs on the Lizard Peninsula!

There was huge excitement amongst the ornithological groups and literally hundreds of people made the lengthly trek to see these new arrivals. A twenty-four hour watch was put on them to ensure that they were protected from hunters. The next year, much to everyones delight two of the birds paired off and started nesting. They had to be constantly monitored as egg collectors would see them as the ultimate prize.

The pair produced three chicks in 2002, all males and so the story continues - 2003 three chicks, 2 males and 1 female, 2004 four chicks, 2 males and 2 females, 2005 five chicks, 2 males and 3 females, 2006 eight chicks from two nests, 5 males and 3 females and 2007 nine chicks from two nests, 6 males and 3 females!

As the numbers have slowly increased the birds have moved to other areas of the coast of West Penwith and thay are all still being carefully monitored. Each bird has been uniquely ringed for easy identification and new nesting sites have twenty-four hour protection.
So, of course, on this visit I had to try to see these new arrivals. I had an approximate idea of where they were being seen and I had a reasonably good idea of what type of habitat they preferred so it was just a matter of a little bit of luck, and keeping my eyes open! It was a beautiful clear, sunny day, again so it was not exactly a hardship to be strolling along the cliff tops, next to the sea. There was plenty of bird activity, the usual suspects, gannets, gulls, fulmars, cormorants, jackdaws, stonechats, skylarks, it seemed like everything but the choughs were out and about enjoying the beautiful weather. My husband had got to the point where he (half joking) said that he didn't think these birds existed and I was at the point of thinking that I was not going to be lucky on this particular day. We were nearing the end of our walk, we walked round the final headland and there in front of us were five black birds, wheeling and calling over the cliff edge. I felt sure that it was just going to be another group of jackdaws (also black) but as we got closer I saw a glimpse of red! Finally, here they were circling overhead and riding the thermals created at the cliffs edge. After flying around us for a while, two of them flew down and landed in front of us whilst the other three flew on. My trusty camera man was already in position crouched in the grass and clicking away while the birds foraged in front of us. We stayed with them for ages just watching and feeling very privileged to be witnessing the return of a native species after over fifty years. Hopefully in another few years these endearing characters will be so common place along the Cornish cliffs again that they will just be included on the previously mentioned list of usual suspects that make up the wonderfully rich array of wildlife along the Cornish coast. At least now when people look at the Cornish coat of arms the bird that is shown centre stage is not a long gone character from the past but a relevant part of the Cornish scenery.

Photo Credits - Dominick V and CJT

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