An overview of birds in Wales
Birds of preyThe 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, although there have been recent worrying incidents involving Buzzards and Hen Harriers. 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. There were no nesting records in Wales for 400 years prior to 2004, when pairs nested in Montgomeryshire and Meirionydd. Six or seven pairs nest in Wales each year and in 2018 successful breeding occurred for the first time in inland Denbighshire. 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. At present only the gulls, especially the Kittiwake, are showing significant declines in Wales. The Pembrokeshire islands hold over half of the world population of Manx Shearwaters with around 375,000 pairs and 40,000 Puffins.They also hold large numbers of European Storm-petrels, Guillemots and Razorbills, and include Grassholm with its 39,000 Gannets that make it the third largest colony on the planet (one in ten 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. Wales has one Little Tern colony, at Gronant on the Denbighshire/Flint border which is currently flourishing with over 200 pairs, thanks in no small part to the protection work done by the Denbighshire Country Service.