The Return of the chough to Cornwall

The last true Cornish chough died in 1973, leaving the county devoid of its ‘national’ symbol. Over the next few years, occasional choughs would be reported, possibly blown in by storms from Brittany or Wales. One pair was observed by Richard Meyer in Rame, near Plymouth, from November 1986 until January 1987. The birds did not form a permanent base, and when they left Cornwall was once again without choughs.

Then in 2001 a small group of three to five choughs arrived in Cornwall, surprising and delighting birdwatchers throughout the county. Three of the birds took up residence on The Lizard, the UK’s most southerly point, and looked set to stay. It was at this time that foot and mouth disease took hold of the country, and all access to the countryside was suddenly restricted. This made it almost impossible to observe the incomers, and meanwhile two of the birds formed a pair.

History was made in 2002 when this pair nested and produced three young. These were the first choughs to be hatched in the wild in Cornwall in over 50 years, much to the delight of all.

The two wild choughs on the Lizard coast in 2002

The two wild choughs on the Lizard coast in 2002 (R Hales)

The Cornwall Chough Project
In response to this event, three organisations, the RSPB, English Nature and the National Trust, formed the Cornwall Chough Project. A look-out and 24 hour surveillance of the nest site is organised to protect the choughs from any unwanted attention during the breeding season. The Cornwall Chough Project also keeps chough-watchers up to date with regular postings on its blog at http://www.cornishchoughs.org/

Many of the watches are undertaken by local volunteers giving their time to support the choughs, including staff from Paradise Park where Operation Chough is based. Information is regularly exchanged between the Cornwall Chough Project and Operation Chough.

More information on the Cornwall Chough Project can be found here.

Breeding records of Red-billed Choughs living wild in Cornwall

  • 2001 – 3 – 5 choughs return to Cornwall
  • 2002 – 3 chicks fledged at The Lizard
  • 2003 – 3 chicks fledged
  • 2004 – 4 chicks fledged
  • 2005 – 5 chicks fledged
  • 2006 – 8 chicks fledged from 2 nests
  • 2007 – 9 chicks fledged from 2 nests
  • 2008 – 6 chicks fledged from 2 nests
  • 2009 – 6 chicks fledged from 2 nests
  • 2010 – 9 chicks fledged from 3 nests
  • 2011 – 15 chicks fledged from 4 nests
  • 2012 – 18 chicks fledged from 5 nests
  • 2013 – 13 chicks fledged from 5 nests
  • 2014 – 17 chicks fledged from 5 nests
  • 2015 – 13 chicks fledged from 8 nests

(Since 2007 there has also been a “pair” of male birds which show all the signs of a bonded mixed sex pair, i.e. holding a territory and buidling a nest). In 2015 one of these males paired with a female who had lost her partner.

The Cornwall Chough Project continues to organise the monitoring of the choughs nests each spring. It is also actively involved in encouraging local farmers to develop chough-friendly habitat management.

Cattle grazing on the cliffs at Predannack

Cattle grazing on the cliffs at Predannack (A Hales)

Cornwall Chough Project objectives

  • Increase the amount and quality of chough friendly habitat around the coastal fringe. This is achieved through advisory work with farmers and landowners and by using agri-environment schemes to fund management
  • Safeguard nesting attempts
  • Monitor the population
  • Promote awareness of why managed habitats are good for wildlife and how they are great for people too
  • Take an overview of chough conservation across England in partnership with Natural England

At the present time, the future of the chough in Cornwall is very much a cliff-hanger! Although there is an expansion of nesting pairs, many of these are related as the population is the result of breeding from just three founders.

Operation Chough will continue to celebrate the fledgling local population and monitor its progress. It will make captive bred birds available for release in Cornwall to secure the future of the current population, if necessary for demographic or genetic reasons, and will also pursue its further objectives:

  • Increase the captive population by extending our partnerships with bird collections, and establish captive breeding groups in several locations.
  • Investigate previous historic sites outside of Cornwall to identify where chough could be re-established.
  • Make birds available for release elsewhere where this will support further colonisation.
  • Promote work on chough genetics.