RING­ING CALL

Bird Watching (UK) - - Species Wryneck -

The Wry­neck is a wood­pecker in Night­jar’s cloth­ing, with the shape of a large war­bler The fal­con-like, whin­ing call of the Wry­neck is now largely a thing of the past in the UK scale het­ero­gene­ity in the English coun­try­side. Then came a cru­cial change in the Wry­neck’s for­tunes – a 30% growth in arable land, most of it con­verted from pas­ture. Even in these early decades of the Wry­neck’s de­cline, an enor­mous shift was tak­ing place – from end­less small­hold­ings, with pas­toral graz­ing, to large-scale agri­cul­tural es­tates, with arable crops. Arable farm­ing pro­moted mono­cul­ture with tall veg­e­ta­tion – anath­ema to ant colony for­ma­tion and Wry­neck feed­ing re­quire­ments.

The Wry­neck’s re­lent­less de­cline

In my view, the Wry­neck’s fate was sealed ear­lier than any other bird of the wider coun­try­side. Only early, sim­ple forms of agri­cul­ture can ben­e­fit it. These are as­so­ci­ated with sub­sis­tence cul­tures, where small-scale live­stock graz­ing and fruit­grow­ing are the sole de­mands placed on a land­scape. This is why the Wry­neck’s de­cline has been re­lent­less across in­dus­tri­alised Europe, and started so early, yet has been less se­vere in tra­di­tional farm­land in the East­ern Bloc or the fruit-grow­ing landscapes of places like Mal­lorca or south­ern Italy. Like Corn Crakes and Red-backed Shrikes, Wry­necks, a grass­land spe­cial­ist, com­mit­ted, early on, to the ma­tri­ces of sub­sis­tence agri­cul­ture. Over the past two cen­turies, they have paid the price. If the Wry­neck’s main de­cline owes to the fact that we evolved, re­morse­lessly, from do­ing a ‘lit­tle’ to a ‘lot’ with agri­cul­tural Bri­tain, there is also a cu­ri­ous quirk in its his­tory. Be­tween 1750 and 1850, the per­cent­age of ru­ral (hu­man) pop­u­la­tion in Bri­tain fell from 46% to 23%. And from the 1860s on­wards, large ar­eas of Bri­tain be­came sub­ject to the ‘agri­cul­tural de­pres­sion’. With on­go­ing ru­ral to ur­ban mi­gra­tion, much of our coun­try­side was, tem­po­rar­ily, de­pop­u­lated, and pas­ture and hay-mead­ows be­came over­grown. By the 1900s, records sug­gest that our re­main­ing Wry­necks were no longer birds of farm­land, but had re­treated into park­land, or­chards, gar­dens and low-in­ten­sity pas­tures, like the Thames Val­ley, where bare ground would have per­se­vered. In coun­ties such as Kent, or­chards sup­ported Wry­necks at a lo­cal level, but as his­tory shows again and again, sum­mer mi­grants can­not be sus­tained by small-scale habi­tats. Much has been made of their ‘south-east­wards’ re­treat, and this was true. Wry­necks were sim­ply left, at the end, where they were com­mon­est to be­gin with. The later de­clines of the Wry­neck, with a pop­u­la­tion al­ready in free-fall, were, in my view, ac­cel­er­ated by our re­lent­less tidy­ing and spray­ing of the coun­try­side. As far back as 1912, Fro­hawk ob­served that, in Sur­rey, Wry­necks de­clined markedly when pes­ti­cides were ap­plied to their breed­ing grounds. Wry­neck habi­tat is fun­da­men­tally in­com­pat­i­ble not only with mod­ern agri­cul­ture, but mod­ern hor­ti­cul­ture, too. Across the 20th Cen­tury, the con­tin­ued re­moval of land­scape nu­ance has been an in­sid­i­ous and cu­mu­la­tive process. In Som­er­set and Here­ford­shire, Wry­neck de­clines, like those of the Lesser Spot­ted Wood­pecker, closely fol­lowed the grub­bing of an­cient or­chards. Few birds have been so ut­terly in­com­pat­i­ble with our mod­ernising land­scape. To­day, any­one who be­lieves vi­able Wry­neck habi­tat ex­ists in Eng­land might like to try to find it. If any­one can dis­cover an ex­ten­sive, wooded pas­ture in Eng­land choked with ant nests – in a land­scape large enough to sus­tain a mi­grant pop­u­la­tion – I’d be in­ter­ested to hear. To­day, the low-in­ten­sity grass­land mo­saic of Bri­tain, com­plete with teem­ing ants, has van­ished on a scale ca­pa­ble of sup­port­ing car­ry­ing ca­pac­ity. There may be dis­crete sites that could sup­port sin­gle pairs. But when we lost sub­sis­tence agri­cul­ture, we re­moved the Wry­neck’s true home.

AVIAN CHIMERA

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