North Northumberland Bird Club

A curlew
A curlew

Gill Thompson was the speaker at the North Northumberland Bird Club at Bamburgh.

She has worked as an ecologist with the Northumberland National Park for 15 years.

That work involves a wide-ranging brief from policy, through planning applications to fieldwork with landowners and volunteers.

Gill began with a brief history of the National Park movement in the UK and the place of our local park within that. It was designated in 1956 and covers approximately 400 square miles of upland Northumberland, with a variety of habitats, including heather and grass moorlands, peat bogs, crags and managed meadows.

We were treated to a fascinating account of each of the emblematic birds in turn, beginning with the curlew.

This, the largest of our wading birds, arrives in the summer to breed in the park. These birds spend the winter, not on our local coast but on the west coast and in Ireland.

The ring ouzel is another summer breeding bird, arriving about the same time in April but staying through to the late summer. It was sad to hear that both these species have declined in the Northumberland National Park since the survey of 1968-72.

The reasons are unclear, though winter shooting of the curlew in Ireland may have contributed to the decline of that species before the activity was recently banned.

Where the ouzel is concerned, the cause may lie in the migration routes or in the areas of Spain and North Africa where these birds spend the winter.

Gill spoke of plans to develop the surveys of both these birds to establish more clearly the health or otherwise of the populations and made a plea for anyone interested in volunteering to get in touch.

The Northumberland National Park is home to both black and red grouse.

The famous lekking of the black grouse was described since it provides the means to monitor these birds. Again, the population has declined in the park, though the neighbouring area of the North Pennines has seen a significant increase.

The sustainability of very small bird populations may be the most significant factor in the decline, plus the impact of bad winters.

The red grouse story is somewhat different since this bird is often managed for commercial shooting. The bird itself is endemic to the UK and the whole world population is here. Though there are differing views on the issue of commercial shooting, the management of the estates can be beneficial for other ground nesting birds as well, since gamekeepers control predators like foxes, crows and stoats.

Gill emphasised the importance of using legal means for this control and reference was made to the impact illegal activity can have on birds of prey.

Gill ended with a view of the new visitor and education centre that is to be built in the south of the National Park, helping the Park to fulfil its three purposes: to conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage; to foster the social and economic well-being of those living in the park and to promote opportunities for understanding and enjoyment.

Gill certainly delivered on that last purpose and left the audience with a deeper understanding of the emblematic birds and what they need to survive, as well as asking sure that we all enjoyed the knowledge, wit and expertise that she brought to the occasion.