Summary and Extracts from Rossiter, B N, Northumberland's birds in the 18th and early 19th centuries: the contribution of John Wallis (1714-1793), Trans Nat Hist Soc Northumb 59(3) 93-136 (1999)

Summary (p.93) and extracts from introduction to Birds of Prey (p.104) and Honey Buzzard (p.108), with references cited (p.131-134).


The background to John Wallis’s work on Northumberland’s birds, published in 1769, is described including a brief biography of the author and the manner in which his accounts were constructed. From a detailed review of Wallis’s chapter on birds, including 50 accounts, some 68 taxa are identified of which 51 are covered in sufficient detail to indicate that they appear to be species found in Northumberland at that time. A systematic list, constructed for these species, is divided into a number of groups covering seabirds, waterbirds, birds of prey, gamebirds and rails, waders, landbirds (non-passerines) and passerines. Within each group is included an analysis of some of the factors that appeared to be affecting population levels from the 17th-19th centuries. A concluding discussion examines the changes found in bird populations between Wallis’s time and the 19th century in terms of the intensification of agriculture and industry and the exploitation of natural resources.

Birds of prey

The eight accounts by Wallis of birds of prey are probably the most important of all his writings from an ornithological perspective. They establish a base-line of abundance against which current population levels can be compared and moreover one taken before the complete elimination of many predatory species in the 19th century. However, no base-line can be regarded as absolute and indeed for some species such as the red kite Milvus milvus, there is evidence that the persecution, which was intense from the late 18th century through almost to the present day, had started before Wallis’s time (Thomas 1984 p. 274.). As early as 1565-66 a mechanism for bounty payments, underpinning the destruction of birds of prey, was established in an Act of Parliament (8 Eliz I c.15) which authorized churchwardens to raise funds to pay so much a head to all those who brought in corpses of species such as foxes, polecats, weasels, stoats, otters, hedgehogs, rats, mice, moles, hawks, buzzards, ospreys, jays, ravens and kingfishers. Many parishes continued to make payments under these and later acts until the 19th century, the persecution shifting from one species to another according to perceived priorities. Surviving parish records show that the destruction effected through the churchwardens was colossal, particularly from the late 17th century, when guns were increasingly used to shoot birds on the wing. Examples from the Churchwardens’ Accounts Books for Corbridge are used in this article to illustrate the scale of the destruction. Bounties were paid on some 1,593 heads of seven species of animal from 1676-1745 including 163 red kites (Rossiter 1998a).

It does not appear, however, that the destruction was applied systematically enough for species actually to be rendered extinct by Wallis’s time. There is evidence that the persecution, originally under the control of public bodies, was increasingly replaced by direct persecution by private estates towards the end of the 18th century. Munsche (1981 p. 41-44) indicates that at this time game preservation became much more systematic with much greater attention paid to the complete elimination of predatory fauna: ‘Equally important was the protection which the game found on preservers' estates. Crows, stoats, weasels, hawks, owls, kites, polecats, magpies and other predators of game were proscribed animals on these estates after mid-century [1750] and landowners handed out liberal rewards to those who destroyed them. Indeed, vermin-catching developed into a relatively lucrative occupation in the second half of the 18th century.’

It is evident in the accounts below that this resulted in a very major drop in raptor numbers from Wallis's time c1760 to the 20th century. Some twelve species can be identified in Wallis’s accounts of which four (red kite, common buzzard, golden eagle and osprey) were eliminated by the 1840s and a further two (marsh and hen harrier) by 1900. By 1910 the honey buzzard had become a very infrequent visitor and in the 1920s the white-tailed eagle made its last appearance for about 70 years. Substantial declines occurred for three more species (sparrowhawk, merlin and peregrine falcon). Only the kestrel maintained its status and even it suffered intense persecution at times. The pattern of elimination is clear. In general, broad-winged raptors were the first to become extinct as they were relatively easy targets for ‘sportsmen' with primitive firearms. The harriers undoubtedly fared better into the mid-19th century and their removal is a protracted affair, perhaps because of their mobility. Falcons and accipiters fared at least as well as harriers for a while, perhaps being more difficult to shoot. Eventually, however, there were also severe declines in their populations.

Honey buzzard Pernis apivorus

F5: Honey-buzzard

In his account of buzzards, Wallis adds: ‘also the rusty brown, yellow-eyed Honey-Buzzard, with a black Cera, and a grey head, about mountainous, woods and heaths1.’ The dark cere, grey head and yellow eyes indicate that the description is of an adult. The rusty-brown colour is normally associated only with a particular morph of juvenile (Cramp 1977-94 II) suggesting some amalgamation of descriptions of different individuals, as found in Ray’s account (1713 p.16). The synonymy given of Buteo apivorus s. vespivorus is pertinent, indicating a bee- and wasp-eating buzzard.

The presence of honey buzzards, in upland wooded areas, is a very interesting claim for c1760. Before sheep became firmly established in upland areas of south-west Northumberland, it is likely that there was considerably more scrub in steep-sided valleys (cleughs) than we are used to today (see black grouse, nightjar and red-backed shrike). The presence of thickets in the uplands would encourage hymenopterous insects, an important food source for this species. There are early records nationally for this species. Willughby & Ray (1678 p. 72) note: ‘It hath not as yet ... been described by any Writer, though it be frequent enough with us’ and provide a satisfactory description. Yarrell et al (1871-85 I) cite two breeding records from 1766-80 and Heysham (1794-97) reported it breeding in Cumberland: ‘this bird is very rare in Cumberland. I have only been able to meet with one specimen, ... I am informed it makes its nest in high trees, and breeds in the woods at Lowther.’ Macpherson (1901) adds that it was claimed in 1835 that at least three more honey buzzards had been killed at Lowther and preserved there.

The species does appear to have been rare nationally in the early 19th century with Selby (1831) noting it as ‘one of the rarest and most elegant of the British Falconidae.’ However, there was then a significant recovery perhaps made more obvious by more effective collecting techniques. Hancock (1874) noted that ‘it is certainly now, according to my experience, one of the commonest larger birds of prey. Since 1831, and up to 1868, twenty five specimens have come under my notice, all taken within the two counties [Northumberland and Durham].’ Besides commenting on the one proven instance of breeding in 1841 at Newbiggin, near Hexham, Hancock also makes the interesting observation that ‘Young birds very much predominate and usually two or three are taken about the same time and near the same place, as if they belonged to the same brood.’ This would suggest that breeding was more frequent than indicated by the one well-documented record. An analysis of honey buzzard records in Northumberland, from the 18th century to the present time (Rossiter 1998b), provides support for Hancock’s view. This analysis indicates that relatively high numbers (0.95 birds/annum) were present in the 1830s and 1840s and the lowest numbers (0.15 birds/annum) occurred from the 1910s to the 1960s. Out of a total of 14 birds obtained in autumn from 1829-1849, for which the age has been published, as many as nine were juveniles indicating a not insignificant breeding population at this time.


Cramp, S. (1977-94). Birds of the Western Palearctic, Oxford University Press, 9 volumes.

Hancock, J. (1874). A Catalogue of the Birds of Northumberland and Durham, Nat. Hist. Trans. Newcastle 6.1-174.

Heysham, J. (1794-97). Catalogue of Cumberland Animals, in: Hutchinson (1794-97).

Macpherson, H.A. (1901). Birds, in: Victoria History of the Counties of England, Cumberland, Archibald Constable, Westminster I 179-217.

Munsche, P.B. (1981). Gentlemen and Poachers: The English Game Laws 1671-1831, Cambridge University Press.

Ray, J. (1713). Synopsis Methodica Avium et Piscium, William Innys, London.

Rossiter, B.N. (1998a). Mammal and Red Kite Bounties in Corbridge in the 17th and 18th Centuries, Vasculum 83(1): 1-10. html

Rossiter, B.N. (1998b). The Historical Status of the Honey Buzzard in Northumberland, Birds in Northumbria 1997 121-125. html

Selby, P.J. (1831). A Catalogue of the Birds hitherto met with in the Counties of Northumberland and Durham, Trans. Nat. Hist. Soc. Northumb. 1: 244-295.

Thomas, K. (1984). Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800, Penguin.

Wallis, J. (1769). The Natural History and Antiquities of Northumberland and of so much of the county of Durham as lies between the rivers Tyne and Tweed, commonly called north Bishoprick, W. and W. Strahan, London I.

Willughby, F., & Ray, J. (1678). The Ornithology of Francis Willughby, John Martyn, London.

Yarrell, W., Newton, A., & Saunders, H. (1871-85). A History of British Birds, 4 volumes, John van Voorst, London.

1It is assumed from known habitat preferences that Wallis meant ‘mountainous woods and heaths’