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'Butcher bird' nests in England after 18-year absence

Last modified: 10 September 2010

Male red-backed shrike

Image: Nigel Blake

Conservationists are celebrating the return of the rare red-backed shrike despite the attention of convicted egg collectors visiting their breeding site. 

This is the first time this bird has successfully nested and raised young in England since the early 1990’s

The birds, at a secret location on Dartmoor, have been under close watch since May to guarantee their safety. RSPB staff and volunteers from the Dartmoor Study Group and Devon Bird Watching & Preservation Society spent more 2,600 hours working on site around the clock.

The protection scheme has also been supported by Forestry Commission, Natural England, Devon and Cornwall Constabulary and Dartmoor National Park Authority. 

The watch proved completely justified, as a number of convicted egg collectors visited the site during the operation.

The watch proved completely justified, as a number of convicted egg collectors visited the site

Kevin Rylands from the RSPB said 'We were delighted with the first sightings of the pair in May, but even more delighted when they settled down to nest. Although it’s been hard work, the efforts of all our staff and volunteers have really paid off and we have three youngsters flitting about the site.'

Red-backed shrikes are migrants which return from Africa in spring. They are also known as 'butcher birds' due to their uncompromising eating habits, which involve catching small creatures and often impaling them on sharp thorns or barbed wire.

These 'larders' can hold caterpillars, lizards and even small mammals. Once a familiar breeding bird across the country, they declined to extinction, last breeding in England (East Anglia) in 1992.

Kevin said: 'Surveys have shown that Dartmoor holds a wealth of species previously widespread in lowland areas such as cuckoo and whinchat. The shrikes will have arrived on spring migration and found the site to their liking. The extent of habitat and numbers of large insects on the moor has no doubt contributed to the success of this nest.'

Ben Philipps, from Forestry Commission England, said: 'It’s been great to help keep these birds safe from the criminal activities of egg thieves. We’re also pleased that the shrikes have chosen an area on Dartmoor we have improved for native wildlife over the past 10 years by increasing the diversity of the habitats.'

Roger Smaldon, one of the team of dedicated volunteers, said: 'Along with several members of the Dartmoor Study Group, I was only too pleased to be a part of this protection scheme, and overjoyed that it has come to a successful conclusion. 

'The last recorded breeding on Dartmoor was near Meldon Reservoir in 1970, so this nesting attempt was far from expected, especially when the national picture of nesting has been totally negative for the past two decades. It means a great deal to be part of the team monitoring this success, and in these days when so many species are under threat, it is a privilege to be a part of this positive happening.'

It is hoped that the birds will return next year and that this is the start of their re-colonization of the UK.

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