The loss of the Wryneck in Britain

A bird is perched on a hand in an area of woodlands

Photograph by Aelwyn, Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.


The Wryneck (Jynx torquilla) is a kind of woodpecker. It looks a bit like a sparrow with a speckled belly like a hawk. It has an unusual habit of raising its crest, extending and twisting its neck around at odd angles like a cobra when it is startled. The chances are, if you live in England you will probably never see one. However, two hundred years ago, they used to be common breeding birds, seen every summer, just like the swallow. In the seventeenth century, Thomas Browne of Norfolk described them as:


An hobby-bird; so called because it comes either with, or a little before, the hobbies in the spring. Of the bigness of a thrush, coloured and paned like a hawk; marvellously subject to the vertigo, and are sometimes taken in those fits. (ed. Wilkin, 1835, p. 321)


The Wryneck disappeared from England quite recently. At the beginning of the nineteenth century it was common across most of England, but it was only common in the south east by 1900, and by 1950 it was common only in Kent (Monk, 1963). In the 21st century it is only ever seen in England as a passage bird, stopping off for a few days on its migration in spring and autumn (Robinson, 2018). At the time when it went extinct in England, the reason for decline was not clear. The bird is still found elsewhere through Europe and Asia in summer, and it went extinct from the north and west of England first, and the south east last, which is unusual (Monk, 1963; Peal, 1968). However, more recent work on the species has shown that the Wryneck needs a specific habitat (Coudrain, Arlettaz and Schaub, 2010; Assandri et al., 2018). As woodpeckers, Wrynecks depend on tall trees for protection and nesting. They also feed mainly on ants, which are most common in lowland areas of bare ground.


Based on these findings, one key reason for the Wryneck’s decline in Britain seems to be the intensification of agriculture. This is a broad term which covers a range of changes (see for example: Overton, 1996). Five hundred years ago, farming was generally carried out on a communal basis and at subsistence level. Today most farming is carried out by private farmers for profit, and land is managed intensively. Because of the interest in profit, there has been an emphasis on increasing productivity of the land. Wetlands have been drained, woodlands have been cut down, hedgerows have been removed and pastureland has been improved into arable land (Merchant, 1980, pp. 42–68). Over the last century, the changes have accelerated with an increased use of machinery, fertilisers, pesticides and the use of sterile seed each year (Robinson and Sutherland, 2002). For the Wryneck in particular, the loss of wooded pasture and traditional orchards have probably been the most significant factors affecting its presence (Macdonald, 2016).

A well lit forest with lots of thin trees

The intensification of agriculture can’t be reversed now. The world’s population is so great, that only intensive agriculture can produce enough food to feed everyone. However, it is sometimes possible to make small changes to make intensive farming more sustainable. The creation of field margins and nest boxes has helped bring back barn owls; leaving small patches without crops in fields has helped skylarks; and sowing special crops can help corncrakes. Excitingly, Wrynecks started breeding in Scotland in the second half the twentieth century, and work from conservationists in Europe suggests that populations like this can be encouraged by habitat management, even in intensively managed environments (Woodbridge, 2007; Coudrain, Arlettaz and Schaub, 2010). With some help, it may be possible for the Wryneck to one day be common across Britain once more.




ADL Success Stories – Dairy Cattle Farming with Annabella Baker

Education opens doors to success windows of opportunity and in at least one case, gates to new possibilities. Such is the case with ADL success story Annabella Baker.  Originally from Italy, but now living in the UK, Annabella faced a tragedy all too familiar to many when she lost her airline job during the Covid

Read More »

Horticulture – Learn the Basics: Three Problems for New Gardeners

Gardens are hard work.  Behind every immaculate lawn and carefully tended flowerbed is a never-ending struggle between nature and gardener. Of course simply leaving the garden to its own devices isn’t really an option; Untended, plants will grow freely for the whole of spring and summer and even into autumn. Worse yet, an uncared for

Read More »

Henry Hoover’s Broken Plug

Some stories of educational achievement soar into the heavens.  Of individuals who through hard work and toil overcame the challenges in their life to achieve. Certainly, at ADL we’ve seen and helped many individuals achieve their dreams through completing a course which helped them get a place at university or begin a new career. This,

Read More »

King Charles and the Grey Goo

If you’ve been in the UK over the past weekend you might have noticed you had a day off on Monday (or looked on enviously as other people had a day off).  The coronation of a new monarch in Charles the Third means a new era. One that the Monarch is especially keen does not

Read More »

Could You Be a Personal Trainer?

If you’re looking for a side business or career that combines a love for fitness and a mentoring role. personal training might be for you Personal training is at it’s heart all about being able to help people live healthier, happier lives.  By combining physical exercise with essential lifestyle changes like diet they help their

Read More »


Scroll to Top


To speak to one of our course advisors, please enter your name and phone number below and click the "Please Call Me" button. We will call you back as soon as possible!

By submitting this form, I provide my consent to ADL to contact me via email or telephone, regarding the course I selected. All information provided is protected in conformity with our Privacy Policy.


required fields are marked with *

By submitting this form, I provide my consent to ADL to contact me via email or telephone, regarding the course I selected. All information provided is protected in conformity with our Privacy Policy.