Chough off: bird lovers protected rare breed’s nest

April 19, 2011 | by | 0 Comments

A dedicated team of volunteers are keeping 24-hour guard on a rare bird’s nest – to protect the eggs from rustlers.

Chough off - bird lovers protected rare breed's nest

The group are camping out on a windswept peninsula armed with binoculars, telescopes, cameras and night-vision equipment.

Their goal is to protect one of England’s rarest birds – the Cornish chough, which is making a slow resurgence since being declared extinct in the 1970s.

Just a handful of the birds have been spotted in the last decade, making their eggs a valuable commodity to illegal private collectors.

Around 80 volunteers work in shifts on the Lizard Peninsula in Cornwall, perched on deck chairs keeping watch over the nest.

The task force is made up of all ages and travel from all over the country to dedicate their time to the scheme – with some travelling from as far afield as Finland.

They will not reveal the exact location of the nest but believe their ‘militant’ operation is crucial to ensuring the iconic bird’s future.

Claire Mucklow, of the RSPB, said: ”In the egg-collecting world a Cornish chough egg would be quite something to have, so we can’t take any chances.

Chough off - bird lovers protected rare breed's nest

”It staggers me the lengths people will go to simply to add to their private collection – which only they will see as it’s illegal anyway.

”Having choughs here in Cornwall is of spiritual significance and people will do everything they can to protect them.

”That’s why local people decided to put in 24-hour protection in shifts. It’s quite militant.”

The Cornish chough is of huge historical significance, having appeared in Shakespeare’s King Lear, and has since been adopted as the official Cornish emblem.

A member of the crow family, it has distinctive red legs and a long red bill.

In the early 1800s hundreds populated Cornwall, until a combination of persecution and destruction of their habitat saw their breeding numbers dwindle and, in 1973, disappear altogether.

But in March 2001 the Cornish Chough Project was launched by the National Trust, Natural England and the RSPB after the first pair were spotted on British shores in almost 30 years.

The nesting site under guard is on a remote and windswept clifftop spot on the Lizard peninsula, where the cliffs are home to a range of wild plants not found anywhere else in the country.

It is not yet known how many eggs are in the nest because the volunteers are unable to reach its precarious position on the cliff edge.

They will maintain their vigil throughout the three month breeding season – from April to June – to deter thieves from targeting the area.

RSPB species protection officer Cat lee Marr said: ”I’ve known people to come from Belgium, Finland and Italy and all over England to help out with the project.

”It’s vitally important we keep a close watch on the nest as they will always be under threat.

”I can’t say too much about the methods employed but as well as the usual cameras, free-standing lights and binoculars, we have other ways of knowing if the nest is being interfered with.

”It sounds awfully dramatic but it’s essential we protect the nests every year from those hoping to steal the eggs.

”Because of their rarity, chough eggs would be a huge feather in the cap of those who collected them.”

Chough off - bird lovers protected rare breed's nest

Pensioners Edwin and Maureen Carter, both in their 70s, work four-hour shifts, three times a week, in any weather to keep tabs on Southerly Point, Lizard.

Edwin said: ”Life is full of magic moments, and, for me, seeing one of these wonderful birds is one of those such moments.

”It gives me a huge buzz, every single time.”

Choughs forage for insects on grassy clifftop areas of west Wales, Scotland, Ireland and Brittany.

Their population in Cornwall gradually fell in the 20th century because of changes in farming methods and the loss of grazing land along the county’s coasts.

Their return to the county came after a decade of work by conservationists, farmers and landowners to restore the birds’ nesting and feeding habitats.

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