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.