‘Last Christmas? Partridges and turtle doves face risk of extinction in UK’

Posted on December 7, 2012


Yesterday (6th December), an item was posted on guardian.co.uk titled ‘Last Christmas? Partridges and turtle doves face risk of extinction in UK’.

‘… Birds in popular carol The Twelve Days of Christmas are disappearing from countryside at alarming rates, scientists say –

For at least 200 years it has been a yuletide staple, but the traditional world of the popular carol The Twelve Days of Christmas is now under threat as never before.

Partridges and turtle doves are disappearing from the countryside at such alarming rates that without urgent action the species may cease to exist in the UK outside the verses of the festive classic, scientists have warned.

And, though they are the most seriously imperilled of the lovers’ tokens bestowed between Christmas Day and Twelfth Night, the fortunes of many others are dwindling too: French hens, maids-a-milking, lords-a-leaping, and pipers and drummers all face difficult times.

The latest wild bird statistics published by Defra on Thursday showed dramatic declines for the first two subjects of the Christmas song.

Once widespread in southern Britain, the turtle dove population, estimated at 14,000 pairs, has seen a 60% drop in numbers in the five years to 2010. The UK grey partridge, estimated at around 43,000 pairs, has seen a 30% fall over the same period.

“Losing six out of 10 of our turtle doves and three out of 10 grey partridge in five years is nothing short of an unsustainable wildlife disaster,” said Mark Eaton, a scientist with the RSPB which launched Operation Turtle Dove in May.

“The turtle dove is in a great degree of danger – if this trend were to continue we could be down to fewer than 1,000 pairs by the middle of the next decade, with complete extinction a real possibility.

“These two icons of Christmas are telling us that wildlife is in crisis. We are urging the government to take urgent action to save these species from becoming just memories within The Twelve Days of Christmas festive classic.”

Interpretations of the verses, thought to have first been published in England in 1780 in the children’s book Mirth Without Mischief, but believed to have originated earlier in Europe, probably in France, are many and varied.

Theories abound that the verses represent the Catholic catechism when it was prohibited to practise the faith openly, or imbue the gifts with other religious symbolism.

The carol’s probable French provenance, however, would suggest that the partridge of pear tree fame is most likely to be the red-legged (or French) partridge, which perches in trees more frequently than the native common, or grey, partridge, and which was not successfully introduced into England until about 1770.

But what of the fate of the others?

The three French hens are not in imminent danger. But, according to Worldpoultry.com, France, once the largest producer of poultry in the EU, saw a decline of 400,000 tonnes, or 20%, between 1998 and 2011.

The fortunes of the four “colly birds” – thought to refer to blackbirds – have fluctuated. Having undergone a moderate 15% decline since 1970, the numbers appear to be on the rise …

The gold rings in the verse have also been interpreted as a variation of “five goldspinks”, with a goldspink being an old name for a goldfinch.

Since the Victorians stopped trapping goldfinches, which almost led to their disappearance in parts of England, especially in the north, they have done well. Numbers have increased by 124% since 1970, when the first detailed monitoring occurred, and since 1995 they have almost doubled, according to the RSPB.

The picture for the six geese-a-laying is mixed. The greylag, which is the ancestor of most domestic geese, and the pink-footed goose have healthy populations. But the white-fronted goose, which overwinters in the UK, has seen numbers crash.

Swans, it seems, are in no danger of relinquishing their place in the ditty. The UK’s native mute swan has doubled in population since 1983, with numbers now between 28,000 and 30,000 breeding adults, with 74,000 birds wintering in the UK.

Far grimmer is the future of the eight maids-a-milking. Milk farm prices are squeezed as never before, hitting an industry that has battled for several years. The number of UK dairy farmers has dropped from 35,741 in 1995 to 14,793 in 2011. And the maid and her bucket was long ago replaced by the modern milking machine …

In total, the 364 items repeated throughout The Twelve Days of Christmas would this year cost £67,000, according to the annual Christmas Price Index. The list, compiled last month by PNC Wealth Management, found the amount was a 6.1% increase on last year …’

Read the item in full and view image at www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2012/dec/06/christmas-partridges-turtle-doves-face-extinction


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