History of Birdwatching in Northamptonshire

Bird-watching sites in Northamptonshire have been continually changing. During the last fifty years both Ecton SF and Ditchford GP have aspired to be the "best" site in the county. Although it was not in the county, Whittlesea Mere must have influenced the type and numbers of birds seen in Northamptonshire in its heyday. The Nene Valley would have attracted more birds in the past as it regularly flooded in Winter. Several sites were lost due to the local government re-organisation in April 1974 which moved the Soke of Peterborough under the charge of Cambridgeshire.

Other parts of Britain have historically been covered more thoroughly with ornithological literature. Our first major publication referring to birds was Morton's 'Natural History of Northamptonshire (1712)'. Unfortunately, no other important text was published until the end of the 19th century. Northamptonshire's ornithological stature was greatly enhanced in the nineteenth century by having as one of its residents, Lord Lilford, the President of the British Ornithologists Union. Thomas Littleton Powys, the Fourth Baron Lilford, who lived from 18/03/1833 to 17/06/1896 was President of the British Ornithologists' Union from 1867 until his death. He travelled widely, especially in the Mediterranean Region and kept a vast collection of birds, a collection that continued in the grounds of Lilford Hall until 1991. His aviaries were well stocked with a great variety of birds from all around the world including rheas, kiwis, Pink-headed Duck Rhodonessa caryophyllacea and at one time even a pair of free-flying Lammergeiers Gypaetus barbartus. His literary efforts left us with a thorough and accurate view of bird life in the county from the end of the 19th century that we should be most grateful for.


Over the centuries there has been an imbalance of records of different types of species due to:-

1) concentration on sites where the less-common or rare visitors may be found, most notably reservoirs and gravel pits.

2) difficulty of identification which has changed over the years (Red-backed Shrike) and of no doubt will change in the future (Mealy Redpoll).

3) habits of some species make them difficult to record (owls).

4) habitat preference of some species make them difficult to see (crakes).

5) awareness as to whether a certain species may occur at all in the county (Mediterranean gull) or even the country (Ring-billed Gull).


Changes in numbers of birds are mainly, but not entirely, due to the changes in the environment brought about by man. The occurrence of birds in Northamptonshire is also affected by changes elsewhere; locally (the draining of Whittlesey Mere) and further afield (Global warming). Often man's influences lead to declining numbers (Large Raptors) but sometimes there are increases (Gulls).

Areas of human influence that affect the numbers and types of birds in Northamptonshire:-

a) Increasing numbers of reservoirs and gravel pits.

b) Agriculture:-

  hedgerows have been removed or hacked down.

  changing agricultural practices - large fields.

  chemicals (fertilisers and pesticides).

  tidying up of rough ground.

c) Woodlands:-

  higher percentage of fir trees.

  more recently lack of funding for forestry commission.

d) Drainage:-

  straightening and clearance of water-courses.

  lowering of water table for agriculture.

  flood barrage.

e) Gardens and parks.

f) Different architecture: old buildings are more suitable for Apodidae and Hirundines.

g) Decline in the use of canals allowing the development of waterside vegetation.

h) Rubbish tips.

i) Development of roads with wide verges as opposed to hedges (M1, M45, A45 and A1-M1 link).

j) Decline and disuse of railways which has added a new rough uncultivated habitat.

k) Public pressure upon places of amenity value.

l) More leisure time.

m) Climatic changes both in Britain and other parts of the world, most notably Africa.

n) Larger population with all connected effects.

o) Shooting; more controlled and less reliance on for food provision.

p) Attitudes towards wildlife becoming more protective.(Political and Social).

q) Disturbance at nest. Egg collecting has become socially unacceptable and illegal.

r) Stronger Laws protecting Wildlife - Countryside Act of 1981.