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THE HISTORY OF SUSSEX PEREGRINES SINCE 1904
© Mali Halls
A small group of dedicated enthusiasts monitoring the peregrine population in Sussex since the late 1980’s. Ornithologists, ecologists, specialist chalk climbers, police wildlife liaison and field workers are all part of a team effort.
SPS began as a result of finding a productive post pesticide eyrie (falcons nesting place) in 1990, prior to this the species had not bred in Sussex for over 30 years. Bart Atfield, founder of the study recognised the importance of documenting the return of the peregrine. Sadly Bart died in 2004 but his legacy continues, as the numbers of Peregrines continue to increase more dedicated people have joined our study to help monitor their progress; Many thanks to everyone who has contributed records over the years, these have helped in making the Sussex Peregrines some of the most recorded anywhere in the world.
DNA : Primarily due to the deleterious effects of organochlorine pesticides, populations of peregrine falcons in the UK underwent severe declines and local extinctions during the mid-20th century. In much of England, Wales and Northern Ireland by 1960 the species was virtually extinct, with a much reduced populations in Scotland. The pattern of peregrine population crash in Sussex parallels those changes throughout the UK. Our question is ... where has the viable recovered population come from?
Evidence suggests its origins are from residual populations in refugia to the north and west (e.g. Cornwall, Wales, Scotland) where a few breeding pairs lingered on. This theory however would suggest that the current re-established Sussex population is the product of a population “bottleneck” and from inbred, genetically impoverished founders.
Monitoring data for the Sussex peregrines from 1990 to date shows that although the population is now at saturation, it shows none of the symptoms of inbreeding: it is highly productive and exhibits high phenotypic variation. These observations raise the questions as to how genetic variation has been maintained throughout the presumed bottleneck, and, in particular, whether the modern Sussex peregrine is genetically the same as the peregrine of the first half of the 20th Century. We speculate that other sources of founder variation, such as emigration from the near Continent or even falconry escapes may have contributed, so we are using molecular DNA techniques which compare Sussex peregrines with parapatric populations in Europe and in captivity. The project is led by Dr Mike Nicholls as part of the Ecology Research Group, Canterbury Christ Church University and Durrell Institute of Conservation & Ecology, University of Kent.
Ringing and Identification :Wherever possible SPS ring young chicks with a numbered British Trust for Ornithology ring and a unique coloured Darvic Ring, which has numbers large enough to be read from a distance. Rings identify where and when the peregrine was hatched and also help us understand the breeding life of the adults.
Ringing and recording is undertaken by trained, experienced and licenced field workers and climbing to the eyries only by experienced chalk climbers.
John Arthington Walpole-Bond 1878-1958
Comprehensive peregrine records for the period between 1904-54, were found in the diaries of naturalist and oologist John Walpole-Bond and document a period of intense egg collecting. From 1957 to 1989 no breeding was recorded in the county; the 30-year absence of breeding has been attributed to the direct effects of organochlorine chemicals on the adult population.
Since 1990 when the first productive post pesticide eyrie was recorded, Sussex Peregrine Study has documented the complete re-population of the area. In the years between 1990 and 2003 all the available ancestral territories previously documented by John Walpole-Bond became reoccupied. As the population continues to grow, SPS has recorded unprecedented expansion into inland areas that was never achieved in the previous 100 years.
Jock, as he was known to his friends, was the son of a vicar and a descendant of Prime Minister Walpole. Birds and particularly their breeding habits were his one abiding passion. He was known for having seen in situ the eggs of every regular breeding bird on the British list and as an oologist, he had at one time a very comprehensive collection. He spent the early years of his life in Bromley Kent, moved on to Wales where he spent several happy years then finally he settled in Hove, Sussex.
Every single day in spring and summer he would travel immense distances in search of nesting birds, mostly on a bicycle or by foot, he knew the county intimately. In 1938, after thirty years working on it, he produced A History of Sussex Birds in three volumes, published by Witherby. He also began drafting a monograph on The Peregrine but due to the narrow mindedness of envious contemporaries who decried his style of writing (something he was very sensitive about) it never saw the light of day.
Jock was an immensely fit man and he always, until he was nearly 80, took a cold bath and did his morning exercises. He was an exceptional climber and it was said that he knew every ledge and hole between Brighton and Hastings which had ever in living memory been used by a Peregrine Falcon.
John Walpole-Bond's books and ornithological diaries contribute over 50 years of detailed Peregrine records.
(part of this article is abridged from JWB obituary, Published in British Birds Vol 51,1958)
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