The Cornish chough, which became extinct in the Duchy in the mid 20thcentury, are thriving at inland nature reserves in Penwith thanks to dedicated conservationists.

The species have been seen on a daily basis at Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s inland nature reserves at Bartinney and Bostraze where pasture restoration and conservation grazing projects have been carried out.

Chough numbers have been increasing along Cornwall’s coastline as suitable habitats are restored, particularly through carefully managed grazing but it is only recently that they have been spotted inland since their reintroduction.

A small group of three birds arrived on the Lizard and took up residence in 2001.

Two of these birds formed a pair and produced three young in 2002, the first choughs to be hatched in the wild in Cornwall in over 50 years.

Since then, conservationists have been working hard to protect these birds and give them the best chance to flourish in Cornwall again.

Since acquiring Bostraze and Bartinney Nature Reserves in 2014, Cornwall Wildlife Trust has been restoring the pastures on these reserves to wildlife-rich, semi-natural grasslands that rely on grazing or hay cutting for their maintenance, without the use of commercial fertilisers.  

Most importantly, the grazing cattle are not wormed, due to the grassland sward being rich in herbs that act as natural wormers. Consequently, cowpats are rich in dung beetle and fly larvae, upon which the choughs can safely feast. 

It is not just the chough that has benefited, Bartinney nature reserve’s lowland heath and hay meadows provide great bird and bee habitat, 52 bee and wasp species, and Bostraze’s boggy areas fizz with insects, upon which many birds feed.

Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s West Cornwall Reserves Manager Nick Marriott said: “For choughs to be coming inland to our reserves is a first – and really exciting, as it shows how well they are doing. Their presence reflects the richness of our nature reserves for wildlife. 

Rare breed cattle at Bostraze (Ben Watkins)

“The choughs have been regularly spotted feeding in the pastures. We know from surveys that these grasslands are particularly rich in dung beetles which in turn feed on the cow pats at both our Bartinney and Bostraze Reserves.

“At these reserves, we practice conservation grazing, which is the use of livestock where the primary objective is to manage a site for wildlife, meaning the cattle are free to roam and have a natural, organic diet free from wormers, which enables the dung beetles to thrive.”

 “Bostraze, in particular, is off the beaten track, providing undisturbed conditions for resident and migratory birds. Spotted flycatchers, reed buntings, grasshopper warblers, cuckoos, skylarks, stonechats and meadow pipits are among the birds that breed there. 

“Bartinney, too, hosts many heath and grassland birds. Highlights have been churring nightjars, Cuckoos seen feeding on the furry caterpillars and reports of breeding Dartford warblers.  

“The choughs have become a regular feature at Bostraze this last summer. However, choughs feeding at Carn Glaze, which is part of the Bartinney complex, this winter is new. They have been spotted above the livestock barns there.

“The public are welcome to visit Bostraze and Bartinney all year round. They are not only new feeding grounds for choughs, but also sanctuaries for ground-nesting birds such as skylark and meadow pipit, alongside reptiles including adders. 

“Therefore, we ask that dogs are kept on leads to minimise disturbance.” 

In past centuries, choughs are likely to have ventured inland to close-cropped pasture as a useful additional foraging ground when coastal conditions were rough. 

But Victorian egg and pet bird collectors, an overgrowth of lush vegetation around Cornwall’s shores often due to lack of grazing, pesticide treatment of cattle which 

poisoned insects feeding on cowpats, and toxic seed treatments all played their part in the choughs’ later decline. 

Part of the highly intelligent crow family, shiny black and easily identified by their red bills and legs, choughs feel most at home on a mosaic of open, exposed short grassland. This terrain, typical of grazed clifftops, is ideal for their long, narrow curved bills, used to probe for insects such as ants and beetle grubs. 

Hilary Mitchell, Cornwall Birds Chough project coordinator, said: “The return of chough to Cornwall represents an amazing conservation success, with the population now well over 200 birds and a record 112 chicks fledging in 2023. 

“Short-grazed habitat is essential, and its loss was one of the main reasons chough became extinct in Cornwall.

"Cornish chough often range quite widely, particularly in autumn and winter and it is really encouraging that some of our birds have identified the Cornwall Wildlife Trust Bartinney and Bostraze reserves as good feeding areas. 

“The reserves are not far from the Penwith coast as the chough flies so will potentially have been important foraging areas for adults raising chicks in the spring.

"Food supplies over winter are equally important, ensuring adults and young birds survive and supporting our healthy and increasing population.”

Ongoing sensitive land management of farmland and protected areas should ensure that the people of Cornwall can enjoy increasing sightings of Cornish choughs into the future.

Cornwall Birds, together with several partners, monitor choughs in Cornwall. They are keen to receive all records. 

A Cornwall Birds spokesperson said: “Some people have been lucky enough to see choughs in their gardens. Please let Cornwall Birds know if you see this happening and what they are eating, so the team can find out how common this behaviour is.” People can email their sightings to [email protected]