An overview of birds in Wales
Within its 8000 square miles (c.20,000 square kilometres), Wales contains a diverse range of habitats that are important for birds. Some, such as the seabird colonies of Anglesey and Pembrokeshire, have probably been that way for thousands of years. By contrast, the lowland valleys, the upland peaks and plateaux and the two wide estuaries that border England to the east have been greatly modified by centuries of farming, and more recently by heavy industry in the south and demand for timber and freshwater in the rural north and centre.
WOS members contribute vital data that enables NGOs and government to track the fortunes of Wales’ birds, and has produced, with other bodies, a list of birds of conservation concern. It also co-produced an annual report on the State of Birds in Wales, last published in 2012.
Download State of Birds in Wales in English
Lawrlwytho Sefyllfa Adar yng Nghymru yn Gymraeg.
Although there have been serious declines in many bird species, Wales nonetheless remains important for several species, or assemblages of species that share a habitat.
Birds of prey
The large expanses of moorland and woodland in Wales, with low levels of human habitation and plenty of small mammals, are home to most of the UK’s raptor species, the most obvious exceptions being the two eagles (though Golden Eagle bred in Snowdonia until the mid 17th century). The wet climate and the conversion of many moors to coniferous forestry in the 20th century meant that management for grouse-shooting didn’t take hold in Wales to the extent of farther north in Britain, so illegal killing of raptors has not been on the scale of the Pennines, Scottish Borders or Highlands during the last century, enabling the recovery of many species.
Buzzards are now common throughout mainland Wales and have doubtless provided a source for expansion into central and northern England. Their spread into eastern Wales is now being followed by Red Kites, which were reduced to no more than 10 pairs around 1910, confined to the Upper Tywi and Wye tributaries. Red Kites now number 600+ pairs in Wales, and reintroductions elsewhere in the UK have helped to secure the birds’ status, with chicks from Wales travelling to Ireland to help the recovery there.
Another fantastic success story has been the arrival of Osprey as a breeding species. With no nesting records in Wales prior to 2004, when pairs nested in Montgomeryshire and Meirionydd. Four or five pairs nest in Wales each year.
The other species for which Wales is significant are:
- Hen Harrier – 43 pairs (2004) compares to fewer than a dozen pairs annually in the whole of England.
- Goshawk, which are hard to see but occur in many of the large upland conifer forests in central and north Wales.
- Merlin, of which there were estimated to be around 70 pairs in the mid 1980s but which regular watchers fear have since declined.
The noise, sight and, above all, smell of an active seabird colony in spring is one of the great wonders of the coast. The seacliffs of north and west Wales are important for several species that have hit real problems in recent years across the UK. So far, the food shortages that have devastated tern, auk and Kittiwake colonies on North Sea coasts – believed to result from climate change – haven’t affected Welsh birds as significantly, but monitoring remains crucial if we are to understand and help.
The Pembrokeshire islands hold large numbers of Manx Shearwaters, European Storm-petrels, Guillemots and Razorbills, and include Grassholm with its 39,000 Gannets that make it the third largest colony on the planet (1 in 10 of the world’s gannets live there). On Anglesey, the seabird colony at South Stack is the most accessible and impressive, though in international terms, Ynys Feurig, Cemlyn and the Skerries are the most important, with Sandwich, Common and Arctic terns, the 3000 pairs of Arctics on the Skerries being the largest in the UK. Roseate Terns breed occasionally at these sites, though the biggest colony in the northeast Atlantic is across the waves in Dublin Bay. Off the southeast coast of Anglesey, Puffin Island now has Puffins once again thanks to an effective rat eradication programme in the 1990s, though its Cormorant population is particularly important.
Other sites around the coast, from the Great and Little Orme in Caernarfonshire to the cliffs of the Gower also host Fulmars, Cormorants and Shags in the breeding season, while in the winter, Carmarthen Bay is of international importance for its Common Scoters, and Liverpool Bay increasingly so.
All of Wales’ rainwater has to go somewhere, and some of the UK’s mightiest rivers rise in Wales. The estuaries of two – the Dee (Flintshire) and the Severn (Gwent) – form the historic natural boundary with England, while the Dyfi (Meirionnydd/Ceredigion) and Burry Inlet (Carmarthenshire/Gower) are smaller but nonetheless of international significance. In winter, thousands of Oystercatchers, Knots, Bar-tailed godwits, Redshanks, Curlews and Dunlins depend on the vast acres of rich mud that is uncovered by the tide twice each day. The saltmarsh associated with these estuaries are important for Wigeons and Teal, and Greenland White-fronted Geese on the Dyfi.
Land reclamation and industrial development has altered several of these estuaries during the last 150 years, though the threat of energy-producing lagoon walls poses a new risk for these intertidal species.
The classic birds of the Western Atlantic oakwoods are Redstart, Pied Flycatcher and Wood Warbler, three birds that occurred at some of their highest UK densities. Although, at 14% of land surface, Wales is now the most afforested country in the UK, only in the last decade or two has native woodland cover increased. Wood Warblers (-72%) and Pied Flycatcher (-55%) are both now Red-listed species in Wales. By contrast, Redstart numbers have recovered well from a crash in the 1970s caused by drought in the Sahel, where they spend the northern winter. As well as being woodland breeding birds, all three are long-distance migrants, a group of birds that conservation organisations are increasingly concerned about.
Upland watercourse species
Wales’ uplands are a source of several of the UK’s major rivers, and many minor ones. Abundant on many of these rocky, fast-flowing tributaries are two passerines – Dipper and Grey Wagtail – for which studies in Wales contribute a great deal to our knowledge. Dippers, in particular, are greatly affected by atmospheric pollutants which raised acid levels in the water, a problem exacerbated by the planting of conifers close to many of the upland watercourses. On some rivers, populations had declined by 80% by the 1980s, though this has reversed thanks to the cleaning up of Europe’s heavy industry. WOS members Steph Tyler and Steve Ormerod undertook many of the studies that told this story. Another passerine, Ring Ouzel, has declined across Britain in the last 30 years and is now red-listed. This summer migrant thrush nests in steep-sided cloughs at the heads of streams, but the reasons for its decline are not yet clear. Ring Ouzels are now scarce in most of the mountain ranges in Wales, though seem to be holding their own in Snowdonia.
With its blood-red bill and ringing cry, choughs are a classic bird of mountains across Eurasia, but in Europe, Wales is very much the stronghold. Of the 276 nesting pairs recorded in the UK in 2014, 215 (78%) were found in Wales: Pembrokeshire, Anglesey and the Llŷn are the main areas, with marked declines in most inland areas. They eat soil invertebrates and so require short grass, ideally grazed by cattle that produce lots of dung. Building their nests on steep rock faces, they’ve taken advantage of stone extraction, nesting in both the quarries and the associated buildings, and now nest as far east as Denbighshire in the north and Glamorgan in the south. Their success in Wales comes thanks to targeted conservation efforts and is in contrast to Northern Ireland, where there is just a single pair, and western Scotland where numbers have fallen by a quarter since 2002.