CAN WE BRING BACK THE WRYNECK?
In the 1800s, the Wryneck was a familiar sight in Britain, but it’s now extinct here. So, what happened? And why aren’t we trying to bring it back?
ast September, I read that a Wryneck had been seen in south Gloucestershire. A migrant to our shores, this cryptic woodpecker was presumably heading back to tropical Africa from its breeding grounds in Scandinavia. Each year, Wrynecks pass through Britain. In spring, a lucky few birders discover them on our south and eastern coasts. In autumn, they return, in greater numbers. But 200 years ago, the naturalists of south Gloucestershire would not need to wait till autumn to see the ‘Cuckoo’s Mate’.
Wrynecks once called from every orchard in the Severn Vale, as in much of the English countryside. Today, our generation regards these cryptic wonders as transients – heading north and south. How exciting that this extraordinary woodpecker once bred across the whole of England. How odd that its decline still puzzles us. How disappointing that we have never sought to bring it back. So, how did we lose the Wryneck – and how can we restore it to our countryside? At the start of the 18th Century, Wrynecks nested throughout the lowlands of every English county, except Northumberland, in the north, and Cornwall, in the west. Their range extended to the entirety of Wales. The Wryneck’s familiarity to non-naturalists across Britain at that time is attested by the amount of folklore that accumulated around it. Wrynecks were called ‘Cuckoo’s Mate’, because of their arrival in Britain days before this other familiar visitor. In Gloucestershire, they were referred to as ‘Cuckoo’s Footmen’. In the Midlands, Tunstall, in 1784, called them the ‘Cuckoo’s Maiden’. The Welsh name, ‘Gwas-y-gog’, meaning ‘Cuckoo’s Servant’, reflected the belief that Wrynecks used to build the nest and hatch the young of the Cuckoo. Across Europe, Wrynecks were believed to hold powers of sexual magic – their head-turning able to turn the heads of wives back to ‘cuckolded’ husbands. The Wryneck’s use in witchcraft and ritual was, likewise, due to fascination with its snake-like head movements – twisting, while
hissing, if disturbed at a nest. The first part of the Wryneck’s Latin name, Jynx torquilla, refers to the ‘jinx’ that birds were believed to cast in turning their head. The familiarity of a species is often attested by how well it becomes ingrained in the folklore of a country. At the start of the 19th Century, Wrynecks, it seems, were everywhere. A century and a half later, they were all but extinct. The best summary of the Wryneck’s decline is written by J F Monk (1963). In the early 19th Century, Wrynecks were common across most of England. By the 1820s, the first retractions in range became apparent. In Durham, for example, birds common in the 1830s had declined ‘lamentably’ by the 1840s, and were largely lost by the 1850s. In Derbyshire, birds were regular until 1831, but rare by 1880. By the 1850s, birds were considered uncommon across Wales, with the last breeding in the north confirmed in 1866. Populations in Cumbria and Lancashire, wellestablished in the 1820s, were scarce by 1850. Between 1850 and 1900, massive declines of the Wryneck were underway. Each county seems to have followed specific trends of its own. Gloucestershire, for example, had birds commonly until at least 1829, from when on they declined. Cambridgeshire had good numbers from 1827 to 1869, but birds were scarce by 1880. On the Isle of Wight, birds were relatively common in 1845 but rare by 1860. In Essex, birds were ‘heard in all directions’ in 1832, but the species was localised by 1890.