RSPB Arne’s Dartford Warblers by Chris Baker, RSPB

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a bird with a liking for gorse must be in want of a folk name beginning with furze.

Dartford warbler (1) by Terry Bagley

Stonechats and whinchats once shared the name furze chat in southern counties from Sussex to Cornwall; in Hampshire it was sometimes furze chirper or furze chucker; in East Anglia furze chuck; in Gloucestershire furze jack; and in Surrey furze clacker.   

Also from Surrey comes furze wren, a delightful name for another gorse-dweller, the Dartford warbler; appropriate for a wren-like bird that lives on furze-covered heaths.

RSPB Arne, with its heathland and gorse, is a hotspot for Dartford warblers but it wasn’t always so for a bird happier closer to the Mediterranean.

Dartford Warbler (2) by Terry Bagley

When the RSPB acquired Arne in 1965 there were only two pairs there and about 12 pairs in the UK; the historically cold winter of 1963 had almost done for the furze wren.

Dartford warblers are confined to just five European countries, as well as a coastal strip of North West Africa – the smallest world range of any of our breeding birds.

Inquisitive, fearless, typically seen diving into a bush or warbling its catchy, metallic song from the top of a gorse thicket with its long tail pointed skywards, Dartford warblers are here all year, finding where they can an approximation of the warmth of the south.

Dartford warbler (3) by Terry Bagley

RSPB Arne’s gorse bushes help it survive un-Mediterranean English winters but they do need to be managed. Left to its own devices gorse grows tall and leggy, with too many gaps for the wind to whip through and not enough shelter for the bird.  

Luke Phillips, RSPB information officer at Arne, said: “If it was to snow, well maintained gorse effectively becomes a little igloo, nice and warm inside and they manage to survive.

“They have got to feed and they have got to sleep, and that is what they need to survive the winter, some grub and some warmth.”

RSPB Arne’s wardens effectively coppice the reserve’s gorse bushes, in the same way as trees are coppiced, cutting them to ground level and allowing new shoots to grow back. The regenerating newly-coppiced gorse is short and thick, just right for a Dartford warbler’s igloo.

 “As the bushes mature we are going to get more good gorse, so we should get more Dartford warblers in the next few years,” Phillips said. “At RSPB Arne this year we have had record numbers so obviously we are doing something right.”

Dartford Warbler (4) by Terry Bagley

About 70 pairs were recorded on the reserve in 2016, the highest ever. And in the UK there are now about 3,000 pairs – almost exclusively on the remaining heaths of southern England.

And those dense, wind-resisting gorse bushes are home to other animals too, such as, and we have no choice but to use the Latin here, Zygiella atrica and Linyphia triangularis, two species of spider that form part of the Dartford warbler’s larder.

Zygiella atrica is common, active all year, and with an abdomen that can grow to about half-an-inch it is a useful source of food for the little bird.  Surveyors trying to count these spiders use a tuning fork, the vibration when it rings mimicking the wings of a flying insect and tempting the insects into the open.

Linyphia triangularis is less hardy and hibernates during the coldest parts of the winter, but is active longer at Arne than many other places, providing yet more grub for Dartford warblers.

Well maintained gorse and a ready supply of food is a magnet for furze-named birds.

Occasional bramblings – another furze chirper in some places – can be seen in winter before heading away to Scandinavia; whinchats are sometimes seen in spring and autumn as they pass through on their migration.

Stonechats, Wordsworth’s ‘restless bird’, are at RSPB Arne all year, making short hops from bush to bush, the males instantly recognisable by their eye-catching black and chestnut plumage as they perch on the topmost branches.    

Phillips said: “If you see a stonechat and look below in the bush there is often a Dartford warbler around, they often share the same bushes. It’s a nice way to find Dartford warblers, look for stonechats and keep an eye on the gorse around it.”

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