Sometimes there is occasion for me to look over the border, outside the beloved District, when something really significant occurs in the natural world about which I can pen an article. Last time it was an American man with a germinating pea plant in his bronchiole, this week we’re a lot closer to home and a far more exciting news story.
Red backed shrikes have bred in England for the first time since the early 1990s!
What’s more they bred at a secret location on Dartmoor, and so have ended a drought of over 30 years for these birds breeding in the County.
This news was released last week by the RSPB, which has been co-ordinating a 24 hour vigil on the nest site, in collaboration with the Dartmoor Study Group and Forrestry Commission to ensure that no human interference could hamper this momentous occurrence.

 The bird

 Red backed shrikes are a charasmatic little bird, slightly larger but slimmer than a house sparrow; a bird whose elegant plumage belies a gruesome behaviour that has earned the bird the moniker “butcher bird”. Even though this is a passerine, a perching bird like blue *** and thrushes, its sharply hooked beak is a clue to its preferred food - shrikes are rapacious carnivores!
Red backed shrikes will take all manner of animal species, from crickets and grasshoppers, small lizards and even small birds. When a large prey item has been successfully snagged by the shrike’s needle-like talons, it often impales the corpse on a thorn, or barb and feeds on it at its leisure. Its this behaviour of hanging meat up to dry which led to the nickname.
A pale grey head, with a cops ‘n’ robbers black mask, gives way to a pale cheek and belly and a rich rufous back which gives this species of shrike its name of red back. 

 The history

50 years ago it was a fairly frequent breeder throughout the UK, but over that period numbers have dropped catastrophically, a decline exasperated by the illegal collection of the bird’s eggs, until by the early nineties none were breeding in England and only tiny breeding numbers at individual sites were recorded in Scotland and Wales.
Until this year it has only been recorded as a migrating bird in England, with singles turning up at migration hot spots along the South and East coasts most years, en-route between Northern European breeding sites and the winter destination of tropical Africa.

 The significance

It was known that numbers were on the decline in France too, however Normandy populations were bucking this trend and doing very well. So conservationists were living in hope of the bird making a return one day.
Birders in the know in Devon had been keeping tabs on a few male birds seen in previous summers, however until this year none of these hopeful chaps had been joined by the all-important female. Then, in Spring 2010 a male on Dartmoor was seen with a female and the dream looked to be coming true.
Amazingly, or perhaps sickeningly, people who did not have the bird’s best interests at heart found out about the location of this population and so a round-the-clock vigil was put in place to ensure the brood’s safety from these maliciously selfish individuals. Egg collectors.
Its something which makes my blood boil. I hate the secrecy with which bird conservationists are forced to operate around some key species. Its my job to eulogise about Devon’s wildlife and its a terrible shame to only be able to bring you this news when the three chicks and both parent birds are far across the Channel on their way to West Africa. However, if that is what it takes to ensure the brood’s safety, then so be it.
With any luck, one successful breeding year will lead to another. Perhaps one or two of the chicks will also return to their birth County and attempt to expand the population, who knows? There are still a million and one disasters which could befall any of them before they reach an age to breed, both natural and man-made. However lets be optimistic: a link in the local food chain that has been missing around here since before I was born is back, and I for one hope I get a chance to see it myself as a breeding bird in Devon sometime very soon!
For anyone who is keen to see a red backed shrike in Devon, keep an eye on www.wildlifeindevon.org.uk for information about migrant bird sightings over the coming months. At the time of writing a single bird is being seen at West Charlton Marsh in the South Hams, and a trip to attempt to spot this charming little chap is highly recommended. Its unlikely to be one of the Devon breeders, as they moved out some time ago, but it will give you an idea of what we are missing and what, hopefully, will be returning to a heath, woodland or common near you in the next few years?