Return of the natives

Black headed gulls at Rye Harbour

We have a small group of birds –  raven, buzzard, peregrine and bearded tit – that likely bred here at Rye Harbour Nature Reserve in the past but were lost due to either persecution or habitat loss, but have re-established themselves since the declaration of the  local nature reserve (LNR) in 1970.

These once rare birds can now be seen here all year round, especially along the walk from Rye that leads out to Castle Water past the castle to the hide and back again up the old railway line (that’s points 11-14 on our map.

A winter walk is a great way to get way from current issues, concerns and worries – and a 15 minute visit to the Halpin birdwatching hide near Camber Castle will give you a chance to relax, look and listen to the wildlife, the wind and the clouds.

Both raven and buzzard had become extinct as breeding species in Sussex by the end of the 19th century, largely due to persecution, though breeding ravens had returned to Sussex by 1938, though at least one bird from the pair concerned had escaped from captivity, while buzzards did not re-establish themselves here until the 1950s.

Pesticides affected birds of prey

However, both species continued to suffer from persecution and in addition buzzard, in common with other birds of prey, was adversely affected by organochlorine pesticides. A reduction in persecution in the latter half of the 20th century (as well as a reduction in the use of organochloride pesticides for buzzard) saw an increase in numbers for both species.

At Rye Harbour Nature Reserve, these species became increasingly common during the 21st century, with breeding occurring in 2018 for raven and 2020 for buzzard, our 100th breeding species in modern times!.

As with the two previous species, peregrines were mercilessly persecuted in Sussex, though, rather than being wiped out completely as a breeding bird, a handful of pairs managed to retain a foothold on coastal cliffs and the occasional inland chalk pit. As with buzzard, peregrines suffered badly from the effects of organochlorine pesticides after the second world war, probably more so due to their complete reliance on live avian prey.

Again, a reduction in persecution coupled to a reduction in the use of organochlorides from the 1960s saw a gradual increase in population during the latter half of the 20th century, with the first Rye Harbour record in 1984 and the first breeding in 2016 on Camber Castle, when a pair fledged two young.

Habitat loss stopped tits breeding

In contrast to the previous species, bearded tit became extinct in the UK in the mid-19th century, not as a result of persecution but probably due to habitat loss, but re-established itself as a breeding species in Sussex in the 1970s.

The first breeding in modern times at Rye Harbour probably occurred early in the 21st century and up to eight pairs have bred in recent years. This species has undoubtedly benefited from extensive reedbed creation undertaken at Castle Water in 2003 as part of the EU LIFE – Nature project reedbeds for bitterns followed in 2006 by work funded by the government’s Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund.

These projects created 130+ islands, extensive areas shallow water and freshwater ditches and increased wetland area by 15 ha. In addition, since then much work has been carried out to maintain the reedbeds, mainly through removal of encroaching willow.

Image Credits: Barry Yates .

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