RICHARD WILLIAMSON Nature Trails...Droughts far away may be leading to demise of birds

In my youth there was hardly a buzzard in the skies let alone peregrine falcons. Now there are many. There were cuckoos everywhere, and literally millions of swallows and house martins. All three have declined alarmingly.

As a child I used to hear corncrakes every summer in the Norfolk water meadows grating their love songs in the dewy summer nights. They have all but gone, a few in Ireland courtesy of the RSPB. But I hardly knew what a red kite was: there were three pairs in Wales, so I read. Now this big rapacious fork-tail hovers over my garden wondering if I am a corpse as I sunbathe on the lawn.

And there were the red-backed shrikes. They nested on the heaths and even the blitzed city wastes in all those scrub bushes and rose-bay willow herbs that looked like the old incendiary fires of the Luftwaffe raids, as these flowers bloomed in summer. Now they are extinct as a breeding bird in Britain, the last one in Thetford Chase nearly ten years since.

Is their demise linked to the present drought crisis in Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia? That is the area through which they have to migrate in autumn and again in spring.

Today, Sussex has two or three birds seen each year on passage in spring and autumn. The photograph is of a female tucking into hawthorn berries.

A century ago the bird was a common breeder, sometimes even in small colonies, nests being only 50 yards apart. Locals gave it all sorts of jaunty names: Cheater, French Magpie, Jack Baker and the common English of Butcher Bird as well. This one because of its habit of hoarding its prey impaled on thorns.

I have seen one of these larders, in the dune valley, Winterton Dunes in Norfolk, beetles, a lizard, and a slow worm were fixed to the spines of a blackthorn bush, stored for leaner days when the young ones hatched out.

Occasionally gamekeepers would see partridge and pheasants chicks impaled, so the Butcher Bird had to hang on the gamekeepers’ larders as penalty.

As Africa’s deserts widen a kilometre a year and as the population grows there and young hot-heads enjoy civil wars when they are young, and as China develops the country for good and geological resources, so the birds that have to use the Continent for their winter livelihood will decline and someone will one day hear the last cuckoo in spring.

Our own farming revolution has seen off the cirl bunting almost, the house and tree sparrow and the lapwing. But we do have a few more bitterns, the avocet and the marsh harrier are common and our estuaries such as Chichester and Pagham harbours are full as they can be, with Brent geese and wigeon at all-time highs. So we mustn’t get too sad about the state of things.