Years ago, if you were riding through woodlands in late April you might have had the privilege of hearing the song of the nightingale. A rich, fluid warble, pouring from deep in the undergrowth might have made you pause your hack to enjoy the elaborate performance of this talented soloist.
Now many of those places have fallen silent as nightingales have been vanishing from the UK: 90% have gone in the last 50 years. In addition, their range, the area of the country they traditionally live in, has shrunk, so you’re now only likely to hear this amazing song in the south and east.
How could this have happened? Nightingales are long distance migrant birds, spending the winter in West Africa before returning in spring to nest. There could be various issues affecting them on this long journey or at their wintering grounds, but one serious problem that has been identified is right here in the UK.
Nightingales these days prefer dense scrubby areas to nest, often near water, with some patchy open ground nearby where they can find food. The loss of sites like this, which often end up covered in concrete, is having a significant effect on the bird’s numbers. Lodge Hill in Kent, for example, is the perfect place for nightingales with its extensive bushes, ancient woodland and rare grassland. It’s remained undisturbed for years and become the most important site in the UK for these birds: up to 85 singing males have been recorded here. Local riders using the two bridleways that pass through the western end of Lodge Hill probably get to hear one of the best natural symphonies in Britain!
However, despite now having Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) status, a high level of legal protection, Lodge Hill has been earmarked for development. The destruction of Lodge Hill would strike a devastating blow to our fragile nightingale population and also set a dangerous precedent for developing on other SSSIs.
This year’s National Nightingale Festival will celebrate this birds’ remarkable song, and highlight the threats it faces. You can take part in a range of events across the country, run by various partner organisations. These include a Bank Holiday weekend devoted to nightingales at RSPB Pulborough Brooks, from 5-8 May; guided walks at Essex Wildlife Trust’s Fingringhoe Wick, RSPB Highnam Woods and RSPB Minsmere; and evenings of dinner, wine and nightingales at Knepp Safaris.
You can also try out something unique: Sam Lee’s immersive Singing with Nightingales events in starlit woods featuring folk music, storytelling and nightingale song.
The National Nightingale Festival runs from 15 April to 31 May. Find out more at rspb.org.uk/nightingalefestival
To help #SaveLodgeHill, there is a critical opportunity to make your voice heard between 16 March and 11 May. Find out how to have your say at rspb.org.uk/savelodgehill