The return of the chough

The Trust owns up to 40 per cent of the Cornish coastline which means we have been vital in the preparations to entice the bird back to the county of which it is a symbol.

Population decline

The population of choughs in Cornwall declined towards the end of the 18th century. The chough had a reputation of filching and hiding money and, especially in Cornwall, it was considered a fire raiser because of its bill and feet. As a result it was often trapped as vermin.

Another cause of decline was a steady degradation in the chough’s preferred habitat – grazed cliffs and heathland. In past centuries, sheep, cattle and ponies would have grazed the cliffs year round, keeping vegetation short and providing perfect conditions for choughs to find a supply of insects, such as dung beetles and ants.

By 1910, the chough had disappeared from all southern coastal counties with the exception of Cornwall. Their numbers declined steadily over the century and they vanished completely in the 1970s. For 28 years, choughs were absent from Cornwall.

A tentative return

In 1993 the National Trust started working to ensure that, if choughs returned naturally, there would be sufficient good-quality habitat for them to survive and successfully raise their young in the county. The key to this was the re-introduction of cliff grazing and scrub management. We started putting cattle, ponies and sheep back on the cliffs, which have maintained a low level of scrubland.

In the spring of 2002 a major milestone was achieved: a pair of choughs settled in a nest site on National Trust land. In the summer, four chicks were hatched, the first born in Cornwall for over 50 years.

Well chuffed

Because of its dependence on low-intensity farming, the chough is recognised as a symbol of a healthy ecosystem and an indicator of a land-use system in which human communities live in harmony with the natural world. The return of the chough to National Trust countryside is possibly the best reward we can get and an indication of a job well done.

'Their natural return was unthinkable. But as is often the case, you look away and the unthinkable happened. The return of our beautiful friend is so much more than just another rare bird returning to where it was once common.'

Pete Cross, writer, photographer and chough watch volunteer