The return of the Cornish chough

A Chough feeding near Lizard Point

The chough, a red-legged and red-billed member of the crow family, has been associated with Cornwall for centuries

by Alastair Cameron, Lizard and Penrose Manager
 
The chough, a red-legged and red-billed member of the crow family, has been associated with Cornwall for centuries. It appears on the Cornish coat of arms, and legend connects it with the soul of King Arthur. Cornwall was the last stronghold of the chough in southern England (it had been in decline since the 18th century) but they had disappeared altogether by the mid-20th century – the last successful recorded breeding was near Newquay in 1947.
 

What went wrong?

 
Although trophy hunters were blamed for the loss of the chough, it was changes in farming practices that really did for it. This bird lives on picking at insects and digging for grubs with its bill, so it needs short-cropped grass - teeming with insects, spiders and other invertebrates - in order to survive. In the old days, clifftops and heathlands were grazed by cattle, sheep and ponies – this kept the scrub and bracken at bay – but when animals were removed to inland fields, the short turf on cliffs became densely overgrown.
 

Restoring habitat

 
In the 1980s and ‘90s, Neptune funds and generous bequests from people who loved the Lizard helped the Trust to piece together a patchwork of ownership and protection around Lizard Point. This then enabled us to work with tenant farmers and other Lizard landowners to reintroduce traditional grazing and scrub management to the clifftops and coastal fields.
We weren’t primarily thinking about choughs – the main aim was to encourage the Lizard’s famous rare flowers and plants, which also require the same short-cropped turf.
 

Choughs return

 
Then in 2001 wild choughs were sighted at Lizard Point. They found the short insect-rich grass they needed and so they stayed, and they have been breeding here successfully ever since. Last spring and summer we welcomed more than 11,000 visitors to the ‘Wildlife Watchpoint’ on Lizard Point – to see seabirds, seals and other marine mammals, and of course the fabulous Cornish choughs. Come and visit soon!
 
We want the coast to be rich in wildlife, with space for species to thrive.