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Page last updated at 11:57 GMT, Monday, 13 September 2010 12:57 UK
Rare bird nests at a top secret spot on Dartmoor
Tony Whitehead
By Tony Whitehead
South West RSPB

Red backed shrike
The red backed shrike - also known as the "butcher bird"

Following months of secrecy, hushed conversations, cloaks and daggers we can at last reveal that there is a new bird nesting in England.

The red backed shrike last bred in the UK over in East Anglia in the early 1990s.

But it has now returned to breed on Dartmoor with a hardy pair raising three youngsters.

They are fascinating birds. I saw one of the last breeding pairs in the late eighties over in Suffolk.

I clearly recall, even after 20 years, the male perched on a thorn bush gently flexing its silky black talons.

Although they are passerines, in the same group of birds as our robins and blackbirds, they are also keen-eyed, sharp-billed predators that eagerly hunt small mammals, large insects and lizards. This is remarkable for a bird no bigger than your hand.

They also have a habit that would see them at home in a 70s Hammer House of Horror flick. After catching their prey they often store it for later by impaling the hapless victim on a spike, be that a thorn or barbed wire fence. This rather gothic behaviour gave rise to their widespread title as "butcher birds".

If you go back 50 years, red backed shrikes were not uncommon in England. Their general decline is something of a mystery, but the population is very much on the edge of its European range.

Dartmoor
Dartmoor - an ideal "bridgehead" for the species to re-colonise

But we do know, that as they became scarcer their eventual fate was exacerbated by the unwanted attention of egg collectors who, in their fevered obsessions appeared to prize the shrikes' eggs above those of other birds.

Although egg collecting has been consigned largely to a paltry footnote in the history books, there are still a small number of people willing to go to great lengths to lay their hairy palms on the eggs of rare species. And shrikes, we believe, are still near the top of their lists.

The first news that the shrikes had settled came back in May 2010.

Knowing they were immediately under threat, the RSPB, local birders from the Dartmoor Study Group and Forestry Commission mounted a huge operation to protect the birds.

It's a good job we did, for within weeks the site received its first visit from known egg collectors. Who knows what was going through their minds, but we feel the protection we afforded the site was enough to dissuade them from satisfying their cravings. Nowadays, to be caught collecting carries a £5,000 per egg fine and possible custodial sentence.

The watch, 24-hours a day, seven days a week, carried on throughout the summer. The team involved grew remarkably close to the birds, their behaviour, their favourite hunting grounds, the tree each bird preferred.

When I visited back in early August I was impressed by the studied concentration of the people involved. To remain fixed on one spot for any length of time is no mean feat.

Finally, after many anxious days in August, the youngsters appeared. Three in all, enthusiastically tended by their proud parents. While this was a relief, it meant no let-up in the protection operation.

Being the only pair, they are hugely vulnerable and the slightest disturbance could spell disaster. And we still felt it right to maintain secrecy to give the newly fledged young the very best start.

But now, with the family days away from their migration south, we decided to lift the lid on this remarkable operation, not least to share the good news and to pay thanks to all those who have willingly given up many hundreds of hours to watch over the shrikes.

And next year? Well, we hope the birds fare well in their African wintering grounds and return to breed again in 2011.

And we hope their young return to breed as well. Dartmoor is an ideal bridgehead for them to re-colonise.

Conservation organisations and landowners have worked hard over the years to make the moor a welcoming place for wildlife, as this success bears witness.

Who knows, if all goes well, give it 10 years and you might have butcher birds near you.

Tony Whitehead is the RSPB press officer for the South West.




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