Wild Things: Ambitious plan to bring back the chough

Our Wild Things columnist Eric Brown reveals ambitious plans to bring back a bird missing for 200 years from Kent’s soaring white cliffs

Soon birdwatchers in Kent will be able to hear the cry of a bird last heard in the county more than 200 years ago.

Plans are well advanced to re-introduce the chough(pronounced chuff) in Kent about two centuries after persecution and intensive farming practices led to the bird disappearing from the county.

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Ignorance led to the chough’s downfall. People who saw choughs foraging on the ground believed they were eating crops rather than promoting growth by consuming harmful insects. They saw choughs supposedly killing livestock when what they were actually doing was feeding on blowfly pupa on the carcases. And they even believed choughs set fire to their houses, breaking in to steal lighted candles they then used to fly up and ignite straw roofs.

Difficult to believe now, but this “behaviour” was reported as fact in a 1586 book by Elizabethan historian William Camden and led to widespread chough slaughter.

No wonder choughs are scarce in Britain, with only 330 breeding pairs, mostly in Wales, Cornwall and the Isle of Man. Resembling crows with bright red curved bills and crimson feet, they eat leatherjackets, dung beetles and other soil invertebrates mainly on clifftop chalk downland pastures.

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A chough reintroduction project run jointly by Kent Wildlife Trust and Wildwood Trust hopes to release birds on grazed land around Dover ideal for their feeding requirements and acrobatic flights including rapid swoops, turning upside-down, vertical climbs and Spitfire-like barrel-rolls.

This location would be appropriate as choughs are mentioned inhabiting the area in Shakespeare’s King Lear. He describes birds on the wing at Dover near what is now known as Shakespeare Cliff.

Thomas Beckett, former archbishop of Canterbury, included the chough on his personal coat of arms and it also appears on the city coat of arms. Cornish folk insist King Arthur did not die but his soul was transported into a chough with bill and legs red from battle.

The birds, which mate for life, feel so comfortable in pre-release aviaries at Dover Castle they have even bred there.

By November the choughs will be returned to aviaries at Wildwood, Herne Bay, where they can be seen during winter but it is hoped the first releases will take place from Dover in spring.

If so, they will be roaring out their distinctive “chee-ow” call and it will be choughs rather than bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover.

*To donate to the cost of the chough re-introduction scheme, please visit The Wildwood Trust or Kent Wildlife Trust websites.

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