The birds included here are not downland specialists by any means but all except one can be seen there, and the fact that by default the first four in particular can be seen in some downland locations better than in farmland is a savage indictment of the problems agriculture has caused. All four are birds of high conservation concern listed on the website of the British Trust for Ornithology www.bto.org because they have suffered a 50 per cent or higher drop in numbers of breeding pairs over the last 25 years.
Linnets (Carduelis cannabina, wingspan 24cm), which sound as good as they look, rely heavily on arable weeds for food and on rough, bushy areas for nesting. Intensified agriculture, and the sterility which often follows, has had a bad effect on them. Formerly abundant in Kent, Essex and Hertfordshire, and present in almost every other county in the UK, they have suffered a steep decline across the board since 1977.
The same applies to the chunkier and even more colourful Yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella, wingspan 26cm), another seed eater which used to be commonplace but has been seriously affected by, among other things, destruction of hedgerows and lack of winter stubble fields.
The Corn Bunting (Miliaria calandra, wingspan 28cm) is essentially a seed eater from cereals, notably barley. Readily distinguished by its style of singing from an exposed position and flying with the legs trailing underneath, the species enjoyed a population recovery in the 1950s and 1960s after an earlier crash, but the collapse since then has been striking. Numbers fell by at least 60 per cent and the range shrank by 35 per cent in the next 20 years. Issues include all those mentioned in the Downland introduction page, plus shrinkage of barley production.
More of the same for the Skylark (Alauda arvensis, wingspan 33cm), which fortunately is not caught to be eaten in Britain now (an estimated 400,000 changed hands for this purpose in London markets in 1854) but is still in decline.
The song-flight of the male Skylark as he rises to 70 metres or more with wings fluttering before dropping to earth like a stone is a match for any sound in the natural world, lasting up to four minutes in a former breeding area I know in Surrey.
They breed in the open or in short vegetation and have a mixed diet of invertebrates and seeds. The bird is still common, but the fact that on farmland its breeding population halved between 1980 and 1991, with a further decline since, is an appalling indictment. Sowing winter wheat is a 'double whammy' for Skylarks, since it removes winter feeding and creates crop growth at the wrong time to encourage breeding.
Male Meadow Pipits (Anthus pratensis, wingspan 23cm) also sing in flight, but they use perches of various kinds as well. Unlike the Skylark, this species seemingly is not facing any collapse in numbers, presumably because they are tremendously adaptable and found in almost any type of habitat where there is some cover. They feed mainly on invertebrates and in the breeding season there are up to three million in Britain.
The Meadow Pipit is much commoner then the Tree Pipit (Anthus trivialis). A clear distinction between them is the length of the back claw, which, as the image shows, is remarkably long in the Meadow Pipit.
In a brisk breeze the distinctive hovering flight of the Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus, wingspan 75cm) as it hunts rodents and sometimes birds, insects and lizards makes for remarkable viewing. In a brilliant proof of Newton's Law "for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction", the bird uses the wind to full advantage, with the head staying motionless all the while though the eyes are constantly moving. The Short-tailed Vole (Microtus agrestis, 11cm), a prolific breeder found widely in grassland and hedge margins where it constructs 'runs', is among the prey most often falling foul of the Kestrel. Similarly the smallest British mammal, the Pygmy Shrew (Sorex minutus, 8cm), which also uses runs.
Despite being pretty numerous, all shrews (including the Common Shrew, Sorex araneus, 10cm) are protected under the 1981 Wildlife & Countryside Act. They have a high heartbeat, about 1,000 times a minute, and a metabolic rate up to three times the average for mammals.
As a result, they live life in the fast lane, eating up to 125 per cent of their body weight each day, targeting mainly invertebrates. (The body weight of the Pygmy Shrew is about 5gms.) Oddly, for all that it is the smaller species the Pygmy Shrew usually has a much larger home range than the Common Shrew, averaging 1,400-1,700 square metres.
The Harvest Mouse (Micromys minutus, 6cm) is also tiny, weighing no more than 6gms. They are not a downland speciality but may be found there since they are nothing if not adaptable, using such varied habitats as tall grasses including cereal crops, hedgerows, roadside verges, reedbeds, dykes and even salt-marshes. They are a natural prey for a wide range of creatures, even on occasions Toads (Bufo bufo). They can produce litters of three to eight young three times a year, feeding on invertebrates, seeds and fruit. The pictured Harvest Mouse was photographed at The British Wildlife Centre.
For most of the 20th century the Buzzard was much more numerous in the west than in lowland England, to the extent that the species was extinct in most of the counties covered in this website. In the last 30 years, however, it has started recolonising strongly and thanks to the large numbers of Rabbits (Oryctolagus cunniculus) on downland, plus plenty of updraughts which assist their flying style, the habitat is ideal for them. The Buzzard pictured here is captive.
The Little Owl (Athene noctua, wingspan 55cm), one of the easiest of the owl family to see in daylight as it perches on fence posts, telegraph poles or bushes, is a relatively recent arrival in Britain, having been released to breed in Northamptonshire in the 1880s. Unlike many releases, they have been a benefit rather than a pest.
If Blackbirds are the greatest exponents of the bath, Little Owls are tops when it comes to taking a shower in the rain. They usually nest in a hole in a tree and are catholic feeders, with the list led by earwigs and beetles but also including rodents, reptiles and amphibians. Oddly, the pictured female had only one eye, and looked as if she had been like that for some time. This must have made hunting very difficult since she lacked the binocular vision on which owls depend.
The belief that it is not only good but necessary to reintroduce iconic yet extinct native species appears to have taken hold among certain conservation groups. No-one could argue that White-tailed Eagles (Haliaeetus albicilla), Beavers (Castor fiber), Wolves (Canis lupus) and Large Blue (Maculinea arion) and Large Copper (Lycaena dispar) butterflies are striking to behold, but in some instances the time and money spent on attempting to create suitable circumstances for such fauna to regain a foothold might be better spent assisting species already here but in sharp decline.
One recovery programme which has worked tremendously well is that for the Red Kite (Milvus milvus, wingspan 185cm). Common until the 18th century, this handsome bird was heavily persecuted, resulting in the total population living in the hilly areas of mid-Wales, with just five pairs at the start of the 20th century. Nest robberies, shootings and illegal poisonings didn't help but increased security by conservationists, together with more enthusiasm and amended land management by farmers, led to there being around 70 pairs, still in Wales, by 1989.
From that year on, a reintroduction programme to help Red Kites spread to some of their former strongholds was put into force, starting with birds from Sweden. The fact that they are not difficult to please in food, eating carrion, worms and small mammals, and do not require big stands of forest in which to build their nests, has undoubtedly helped but the results have still been remarkable. The national total in 2006 was getting on for 1,000 breeding pairs, including more than 200 in the Chilterns. In Europe as a whole there are around 25,000 pairs.
A large number of hatchlings are tagged and have a transmitter attached for radio tracking - these can clearly be seen on the pictured bird in Oxfordshire. This helps provide data for research programmes. Nobody who has seen a Red Kite soaring would dispute the value of the reintroduction, and given that they were not extinct and, unlike the Large Copper for one, had appropriate habitat in a number of places the policy undoubtedly was justified.
From that bright note, we move on to a dirge which does not have specific application to downland but is as appropriately commented upon in this section as anywhere.
Unimproved grassland can carry numerous anthills, which are a valuable resource for plenty of creatures besides ants, notably various types of blue butterfly and a bird which used to be the commonest woodpecker in parts of lowland England such as Suffolk but is now effectively extinct in Britain - the Wryneck (Jynx torquilla, wingspan 26cm).
Having bred in 54 counties at the end of the 19th century, the Wryneck was down to eight counties by the 1970s, and seemingly now there are none, with a few stragglers migrating towards Scandinavia in April presenting about the only chance of glimpsing one. The pictured bird turned up in a garden in April 2006 and had departed within a day.
The reasons for the collapse, which has occurred to a lesser extent in other European countries, may well be largely attributable to long-term agricultural changes with the destruction of grassland through crop farming and/or afforestation. Ants form by far the greatest part of the Wryneck's diet, and these developments have done nothing for ants.
There is still some grassland with anthills, however, especially on and around downland, and there is surely enough to suggest that the decline of the Wryneck may have additional causes. When a species can live to the age of ten, and produce two broods a year averaging eight eggs, it is surely unconvincing to lay all the blame on agricultural change.
Images © Jeremy Early. All rights reserved.
In 2013 I published My Side of the Fence - the Natural History of a Surrey Garden. Details may be found, and orders placed, via this hyperlink My Side of the Fence. In November 2015 Surrey Wildlife Trust published the atlas Soldierflies, their allies and Conopidae of Surrey, jointly written by David Baldock and me. Details are on this web page: Atlas.