The Story behind the Photo 2

Yellow Wagtail at Bourtreehill mid 1970s

Imagine, if you will, a time when Bourtreehill, Irvine was predominantly farmland, with fields of barley and hay rippling in the early summer breeze.  Most of my limited encounters with Yellow Wagtail, up till this period, had been in wet meadows and marshland, often with cattle present nearby.  The thought of looking for breeding birds in cereal fields or hayfields hadn’t crossed my mind.  Strange, really, since it had once been a bird which had been quite common in Scotland, rejoicing in nicknames like “Corn Willie.”   

During the mid-1970s a small breeding population existed in the Gailes-Irvine-Burnhouse-Fenwick areas.  The Bourtreehill birds were present at this time.  In 1978, Iain Gibson set up a full survey of the area north of Irvine and located around 27-30 pairs during the following 3 years – with most in hay or barley! 

So, back to Bourtreehill, and the photo of a fine male Yellow Wagtail perched on a hawthorn hedge, prior to dropping in to where its nest was.  I suppose you never really look too far into the future when you’re young, but this site’s days were numbered.  Like the other breeding pairs in Ayrshire, this couple faced huge changes in land use.  An extension of Irvine New Town soon swallowed up this site, and further changes to Ayrshire’s farming practices saw the virtual disappearance of hay, with both the increase in silage and the use of chemicals on the land having a marked effect on the wagtails.  By 1984 the breeding population had slumped to around 10 pairs, and it vanished soon thereafter, with a pair hanging on and rearing young at Kingswell during 1986.

It was never a common breeding species in Ayrshire in the 20th century, and its collapse here was mirrored across much of Central Scotland.  A few pairs continue to breed, in cereal fields, in eastern Scotland, but the prospect of a return to Ayrshire seem remote.  All of which makes the photograph below all the more nostalgic.

Male Yellow Wagtail at nest site in Bourtreehill, Irvine – mid 1970s  (© Angus Hogg)

Angus Hogg
15 October 2022