Author Michael Blencowe
Lewes Community Wildlife Officer
There’s nothing that can lift my spirits more than learning that the first wheatears have started to arrive on the Sussex coast. After enduring the worst winter ever, I greeted the news of the first wheatear of 2014 with mild euphoria and I wanted to run out into the street and hug the first person I saw. Luckily, for the residents of Sussex, I was able to apply some restraint – although I did punch the air and update my Facebook status.
As our earliest returning African migrants wheatears are at the forefront of the annual summer invasion. Not far behind them thousands and thousands of beating hearts and beating wings are currently powering tiny bodies through North African skies. It’s a fast 3000 mile flight from Sierra Leone to Sussex for a one ounce wheatear and they’ve been recorded migrating at 500 miles a day. The dashing males arrive first. Their soft sun bleached shades of pink and buff topped with a dapper black bandit’s mask. At the Sussex Wildlife Trust’s Southerham nature reserve you’ll see them scurrying over the grazed downland turf, refuelling after their flight. When they fly wheatears flash the white rump which gave them their name. Because wheatears have nothing to do with wheat or ears. Their original name was ‘white arse’. Victorians and vicars birdwatching in mixed company blushed when they spotted one. So their name was subtly censored.
Wheatear is a more palatable name for a tragically palatable bird. In Sussex they were considered a local delicacy and were served at the finest banquets in Lewes, Brighton and Eastbourne. South Downs shepherds would trap them to increase their income. Gluttonous gourmets were so desperate for fresh wheatear that they would prowl the downs and take birds straight from unmanned traps leaving a pile of coins for the shepherds.
In 1900 outspoken and outraged Sussex conservationist W. H. Hudson wrote
“It is not fair that wheatears should be killed merely to enable London stockbrokers, sporting men, and other gorgeous persons who visit the coast, accompanied by ladies with yellow hair, to feed on them at the big Brighton hotels.”
But the damage was done. Trapping and, more importantly, the gradual loss of their sheep-grazed downland habitat caused the birds to disappear from Sussex. The wheatears we now see in Sussex unsurprisingly don’t hang around. Each spring they briefly return to their old downland haunts, flash their white arses at the people of Sussex and keep on movin’. From Sussex they’ll head onwards to breeding sites in northern England and northern Europe. But for some of these birds their amazing migration is far from over and will continue for a further 2000 miles over cold oceans to Greenland and Arctic Canada. Yet a few wheatears do breed here and we’re proud that Rye Harbour Nature Reserve is one of the few places in Sussex that they still call home.
I’ll be heading out to our Southerham reserve near Lewes for our annual ‘Welcoming in the Wheatears’ walk on Thursday 3rd April. Meet on the bridge over the River Ouse on Cliffe High Street, Lewes at 10:30. More details on the events page of our website.