RICHARD WILLIAMSON: County emblem the shelduck has gone Dutch

Chichester Natural History Society celebrates its 50th anniversary this year bringing its emblem, the shelduck, into sharp focus.

Shelducks, the logo of the Chichester Natural History Society
Shelducks, the logo of the Chichester Natural History Society

My wife drew the original small emblem half a century ago, the larger one by another artist. In those days shelducks were four times as common in Sussex as they are today. They were virtually the county emblem, never mind our NHS. 5400 were recorded on our monthly wildfowl counts for Chichester and Pagham harbours in March 1968. Today you might get 700 if you’re lucky. The logo was chosen because these big black and white ducks were everywhere across the mudflats, one of the wildlife flags for a healthy county. They were such fun to see and have around you as you sailed your boat or strode the seawalls.

They were almost as common then as brent geese are today. We were so used to seeing them, as today we are with the brents. What has happened to them? Well, it seems they have all gone Dutch. Because of the mild winters we started to have in the Nineties they shifted their feeding and wintering grounds to the Netherlands. But due to hardish winters in the past two years there has been a slight blip back up again. Last year the GB max was 52,041 half what it was in 1990s

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Again in those days shelduck bred much more in Sussex, with 500 pairs suggested by Walpole-Bond for 1938, a figure disputed by Michael Shrubb in his book The Birds of Sussex of 1979 but certainly well up on the number today. The RSPB have had success in the Pulborough Brooks nature reserve recently, while flotillas of duckling are seen at Sidlesham, Bosham, and Fishbourne.

Shelducks breed down rabbit holes, and there are fewer of those than in the past. Failing that they will creep into dense gorse bushes and they too are not so common. Increased numbers of badgers and foxes dig them out anyway.

They try straw bale stacks out in the fields, but then have to walk their ducklings to the nearest stream or harbour and that will be the end of them. Fifty years ago I used to watch a pair with a nest in a rabbit burrow at Kingley Vale, and sometimes I would be on hand to transport their ducklings down to Fishbourne. Mrs Elwes at West Stoke house rescued one lost duckling in the carpark and kept it as a pet for 17 years. Let’s hope we get another good hard winter this season again when we might see large numbers of our good old logo for the NHS, the Beer-gander, Burrow-duck, Bar-goose, or Tadorna tadorna if you are scientifically inclined.