Country diary: Is this the last ring ouzel in southern England?

West Dartmoor, Devon: I feared this day might come – the dwindling numbers of this mountain blackbird have come down to a lone male

There is a hollow ache in the air, a void that the calls of meadow pipits and wheatears cannot fill. I follow the moorland path – as I have done innumerable times over the last 10 years. Every so often I stop to listen, to scan the granite boulders and stunted trees in this west Dartmoor river valley. But there is no sign of the upland bird that has always made the rocky terrain its home in spring and summer. The simple piping song of males, piercing the rush of wind and water, is absent. It feels as though this muted landscape shares my grief at the loss.

For the past decade, I have helped experts monitor the isolated nest sites of one of Dartmoor’s rarest breeding birds, a migrant mountain blackbird called the ring ouzel. When I started there were a dozen or more pairs scattered across the national park. Numbers gradually halved, and in 2020 just two breeding pairs were located.

Ring ouzels have regularly nested amid the heather and bilberry in this rocky west Dartmoor valley.
Ring ouzels have regularly nested amid the heather and bilberry in this rocky west Dartmoor valley. Photograph: Charlie Elder

In April this year I spent time observing a lone male who sang from the heather-covered flanks of this valley without answer, and eventually moved on. So far, the picture is much the same elsewhere on the moor. They can be elusive, but it looks as though, for the first time, no ring ouzels may nest this season on Dartmoor, their last outpost in southern England.

Reasons for their decline are unclear, with disturbance and predation, grazing patterns and climate change among potential factors, and they also face challenges overseas on southerly wintering grounds and during migration. If they disappear – as they have from the other West Country uplands of Exmoor and Bodmin Moor – it would be optimistic to expect them to make a meaningful return. And Dartmoor would be diminished without the element of wilderness these hardy travellers bring.

As I walk, I spot concealed crevices amid the tors where pairs of ring ouzels previously raised young; the perches from which white-chested males claimed territories; the grassy areas where females gathered worms for a growing brood. Now this valley, which once cradled such life, seems subdued, bereft. After years of declining numbers, I feared this day might come. Silence. This is what extinction sounds like.

Country Diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary


Charlie Elder

The GuardianTramp

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