The recent news that Red-backed Shrikes have bred in England for the second year running is particularly welcome. While it does not necessarily mean that the species is going to recolonise the country, it gives hope that we might see an increased number of successful nesting attempts in future years.
There was a time when the Red-backed Shrike, or ‘butcher-bird’ as it is sometimes known, was a common breeding species across much of the country. Bits of scrubby habitat, thick with bramble, hawthorn and blackthorn, were favoured for nesting, as were the newly established conifer blocks of the dry breckland soils. Victorian ornithologists were the first to note that Red-backed Shrike numbers were in decline, even though the species was still widespread as a summer-visiting breeder. During the 20th Century, however, the population collapsed and the loss of birds from previously favoured sites seemed relentless. As the numbers of breeding pairs shrank, so the population retreated to heathland habitats and their protective gorse. The last of these haunts was near Santon Downham in the brecks, where the last pair nested in 1990, the year I first moved to Norfolk.
The reasons behind the decline are thought to be linked to agricultural intensification, but egg-collecting almost certainly played a major part in the decline. The colourful and often variable eggs were particularly attractive to egg-collectors and as the birds became increasingly scarce, so the eggs became all the more prized. Although much less common today than it once was, egg-collecting still continues. For this reason, the shrikes nesting near Dartmoor have had to have round-the-clock protection. This highlights the dichotomy in our society; there are those who will selflessly give up their time to help protect and conserve rare species, acting as wardens, managing habitat and liaising with birdwatchers. Then there are those whose selfishness sees them take eggs and put the future of a species at risk, simply because they seek ownership over something that is not theirs to have.
For me, the Red-backed Shrike remains a passage visitor. It is a bird I catch up with most autumns, usually in some scruffy bit of scrub on the coast. The ‘butcher bird’ is probably all the more special to me because I do not encounter it that often. Mind you, it is such a striking and charismatic species that, even if it were once again a common breeder, I am certain that it would still hold a special place in my affections. I guess you might be wondering about the ‘butcher bird’ tag. Well, this comes from the shrike’s habit of impaling prey items on thorns and barbed wire, maintaining a larder, much like an old-fashioned butcher’s shop window.