Birdwatch News Archive
Chough is not yet thriving in Cornwall, but looks set to stay, and hopes are high for the British and Irish populations to strengthen and link up in future. Photo: Malte Uhl (commons.wikimedia.org).
Irish Choughs colonised Cornwall
Posted on: 04 Jul 2012
The recent colonisation of Cornwall by Chough was thought to derive from Brittany, but now DNA tests have shown that they probably came from further afield.
The Chough stands proud on the Cornish coat of arms but became extinct in the Duchy in 1947, depriving Cornwall of one of its most charismatic species and cultural symbols.
That was until three Choughs of unknown origin appeared in Cornwall in 2001 and founded a new breeding population, restoring the 'Cornish Chough' to its historic home and causing great excitement among birders and conservationists. But where did the three pioneers come from?
Until now, they were speculated to have travelled from populations in south Wales or Brittany, but now clever genetic detective work has suggested that the Cornish pioneers came from even further afield: Ireland.
Researchers collected moulted feathers that were naturally shed by the Cornish birds, and by Choughs in other populations across Europe. Scientists from the University of Aberdeen then extracted DNA from the feather tips, and compared the DNA sequences of the Cornish choughs with those from elsewhere. By far the best match to the Cornish birds was the Irish population, suggesting an unexpected Celtic origin for the new Cornish birds.
Dr Jane Reid, Royal Society University Research Fellow at the University, said: "We would never have known the origin of the new Cornish Choughs without the DNA analysis – we didn’t guess that they would have come from Ireland."
Claire Mucklow, of the RSPB, added: "We assumed those intrepid colonists would have come from closer populations – how wonderful that they have turned out to be Irish! The return of Choughs to Cornwall has been very significant, not just in terms of conservation but in terms of Cornwall’s cultural heritage."
The new Cornish Chough population is now going from strength to strength, and five pairs bred successfully in 2012. The future success of the population is being ensured by conservation organisations and farmers who are working to provide suitable habitat, as well as by volunteers who provide round-the-clock surveillance of nests.
With recent sightings of Welsh Choughs in north Devon, there is potential for a merging of Celtic Chough diversity in south-west England, which can only be positive for the prospects of this scarce species.
2 3 4 >