The conservation and heritage charity for the
Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park

Weekly Nature Watch

Keith Graham's weekly update on the nature of the Park.

Weekly Nature Watch 15 Nov 2019

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They have flown across the skies between Iceland and Scotland like great, full-sailed, white galleons. Their winter will be spent here, albeit that they may well be nomadic in habit moving from one part of the country to another in order to find good grazing. The flight itself must have been testing to say the least, especially for the young whooper swans hatched only a few months ago. But they had no choice but to embark on this hazardous journey across almost a thousand miles of North Atlantic as a means of survival.

Iceland, their birthplace, is a hostile winter environment and migration is therefore their only reasonable choice. At least they will have been shepherded across that dangerous ocean by their parents and other senior members of the flock. Nevertheless, this will have been a challenge so soon in their short lives but the sense of adventure will have been enhanced by the speed at which their journey will have been undertaken. As many of us know only too well, the winds have turned to the north in recent days. Hence the snow now decorating the hills but whooper swans like to make this journey with tailwinds to drive them forward.

Out of preference, this trans-Atlantic flight is conducted, by and large, at low levels and not too far above the restless surface of the sea. However, should these migrating whoopers encounter hostile weather- systems, tactics may change and in order to maintain their progress, they may rise to higher altitudes as a means of overflying the weather conditions. Indeed, whooper swans have been recorded flying at altitudes of nearly thirty thousand feet in order to avoid turbulence. Incredibly, at such heights they are having to navigate in temperatures which may dip to as low as minus fifty degrees and where there is relatively little oxygen so this now becomes an even greater test of endurance.

Once those tailwinds start to blow, there is simply no stopping whooper swans. It has been calculated that with the following winds at high altitude and with the help of the jet stream and thermals, they may reach speeds of over eighty miles per hour, so they are certainly no slouches. I doubt if the more ponderous mute swans could achieve anything like that kind of speed but then whooper swans are that bit lighter, that bit more athletic. These are our true wild swans and, in that respect, they differ from the mute swans with which most people, whether resident in town or country, are familiar. Mute swans choose to reside on park ponds, canals and a variety of waterways, rivers and sea-shores where they readily accept gifts of food, such as bread from passing folk.

Whoopers on the other hand much prefer remoter stretches of water such as Highland lochs and lochans, where there are few people. It seems to be below their dignity to accept scraps from passing humans and indeed non-acceptance of such close company, is a further confirmation of their truly wild character and spirit! Indeed, these are almost certainly the swans that have been the subject of a whole host of myths and legends. However, there is no evidence at all that swans of any kind sing before they die. I’m afraid the ‘swan song’ is entirely an invention of human imagination.

Whooper swans however, are more vocal than their mute cousins. Their passage is often marked by a gentle bugling that is definitely soothing on the human ear. Years ago, our winter mornings were often punctuated by the passage of birds. At first light, there would be the gabbling of geese as they did their fly past on the way to their daily grazing. This would be followed by the raucous passage of rooks and jackdaws rising from their nightly roosts to get out into the fields to search for food in the shape of countless noxious invertebrates that can damage farm crops and finally the gentle fluting of the whoopers as they brought up the rear. They too would be setting out to find good grazing and theirs were the most pleasant voices. Such order sadly no longer seems to apply here as it used to.

I suppose that wild swans might be seen by the creators of folklore, as suitable subjects. After all, they are the embodiment of grace and who would not want to be transformed in to a swan? Many tales involving swans come from Ireland, the home of so much folklore. These are the swans that sing sweet songs in so many Irish legends. For example, the ‘children of Lir’ - the sons and daughters of an Irish king were turned into swans by their inevitable ‘wicked’ stepmother and sentenced to live for nine hundred years on the waters of Moyle! So wonderful was their singing that anyone hearing it would fall under their spell and gather to hear such music.

However, the Irish by no means enjoy the monopoly of swan stories for the Ancient Greeks had wild swans pulling Apollo’s chariot across the skies too. Apollo was of course the sun god. Indeed, further myth tells us that Apollo and his twin Artemis were conceived by Zeus in the form of swans. In which case perhaps the two whooper swans I recently saw on one of our lochs, which caused the resident mute swan cob such consternation may well have been those Greek twins!

Mute swan cobs can be aggressive, especially when it comes to territorial integrity. The two whoopers landed on his patch at one end of the loch and he immediately set off to remove them, his legs working overtime as he paddled furiously towards them. Having swum the length of the loch, he was frustrated as the two whoopers took off without fuss and without being laboured and flew back to the top of the loch he had just vacated. He now began to retrace his steps only for the whoopers to translocate again. To and fro they went for some time before the cob just gave up the futile chase!

Mute swans can be aggressive and often hiss if people get too near to them, however, the rumour that a swan is capable of breaking a human arm with its wing is also a myth of more modern invention. Whooper swans, which disport themselves mainly straight necked compared with arched neck of the mute swan, seem more serene and simply move on should we invade their space. Occasionally whoopers may trumpet but their fluting conversations and their delightful bugling are what we mostly hear.

Such birds of beauty, subjects of myths and ancient tales are clearly hardy in the extreme and surely amongst the most beautiful of all the winter migrants we enjoy seeing. We surely welcome them as worthy winter residents. Simply majestic!

Weekly Nature Watch 08 Nov 19

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It is hundreds of years ago since Viking raiders wreaked havoc among many of Scotland’s coastal communities. In the end, many of the Norsemen decided to settle here, their presence in the past still evident through their red-headed descendants! We still get Viking raiders, albeit that these days they are of a feathered nature rather than axe and sword wielding humans. Nor do these raiders sail here in longboats, instead they fly here. The bulk of them descend upon us in October and indeed in recent days they have been very evident, mainly scattering at my approach and flying away … very rapidly as is their wont!

Flocks of fieldfares and redwings have suddenly become very evident in our autumn landscape. Like their erstwhile human raiders, they swarm across our countryside seemingly belligerently. However, they lack the evil intent that characterized their human predecessors of yesteryear, unless of course, you consider the mass exploitation of our berry crop as an offence against us. They have come here because in their native heaths the frosts are now rapidly seizing the landscape, locking up their food supply of berries and invertebrates. Even though when the clocks go back, we may be inclined to bouts of shivering, believe me our winter climate, compared with that of the northern and eastern territories these feathered nomads have left behind, is temperate in the extreme.

Of course, we have the Atlantic current of the Gulf Stream to thank for a relatively mild if damp winter climate. These two birds are to be compared with our own sedentary mistle and song thrushes. Of these northern thrushes, the fieldfares resemble in size our mistle thrushes but have grey heads and posteriors, the tips of their tails black, whilst the redwings are similar in size to the song thrushes but are adorned with a prominent red flash under the wings, particularly evident when the birds are in flight. We may mourn the absence of our summer migrant visitors, those supremely athletic swallows together with the delightful martins and all those tuneful warblers, in all, some fifty million or so of them but it may come as something of a surprise to learn that we also during the autumn, welcome just as many winter visitors if not more!

The great skeins of geese may be the most obvious manifestation of these arrivals in this airt but the mixed flocks of fieldfares and redwings pepper our autumn landscapes too, rampaging here and there to exploit berries and feast on invertebrates. Thus, they become a very obvious presence whereas many of the other incoming migrants simply merge with native populations, from which they are virtually indistinguishable. The advantage reaped by fieldfares in teaming up with redwings is that redwings seem better at discovering invertebrates and therefore the fieldfares stick close to the redwings as they seek such food.

Redwings however, appear more adventurous in so far as they are prepared to visit urban and suburban areas in order to exploit the exotic, berry bearing shrubs and trees so often planted in parks and gardens, whereas fieldfares very definitely shun urban and suburban areas. I well remember seeing swarms of redwings stripping the berries from such a tree in the heart of Glasgow. There was not a fieldfare to be seen nor indeed a berry left when they had finished! However, these Scandinavian thrushes do not necessarily always come to Britain and may well move on if conditions are severe. Perhaps like their human predecessors they wander far and wide. Viking settlements were certainly established in America, pre- Columbus.

Indeed, redwings that have been ringed here in Britain one winter have been found as far away as Greece, Italy and Israel, during following winters. It would therefore seem that in general redwings may winter over very large areas. Redwings also have a neat way of avoiding the likes of sparrowhawks. They will quite often invade woodland fringes where they turn over leaf litter in their search for insect life. If a hawk appears, they may evade capture by simply squatting among the leaves, well concealed by the fact that their mottled brown plumage gives them excellent camouflage. In their native heath, fieldfares too wreak havoc among avian predators such as the sparrowhawks by getting together and dive bombing them, at the same time defecating. Such deposits damage the hawks’ plumage and so they generally give fieldfares a wide berth.

I seem to remember that the earliest attempts to restore sea eagles to Scotland failed because of the presence of large numbers of fulmars at the re-introduction site. Fulmars if threatened spit out a noxious material from their prominent nostrils. This too damages plumage, enough to send the sea eagles packing. Curiously enough, the message that fieldfares repel predators in that way, has been received by other birds in those Scandinavian and Russian forests, for they deliberately choose to nest close to the fieldfares so that they too might benefit from the anti-raptor barrage!

The passage of these mixed flocks of fieldfares and redwings we are seeing now, can sometimes be a noisy affair, the birds coarsely uttering a loud ‘chacking’ as they fly. Some of these winter visitors come from as far away as Russia with or without love! Among these birds seeking winter solace here are also short-eared owls and tiny goldcrests. Indeed, it was once firmly believed that goldcrests actually travelled with the owls, even hitching lifts and hiding in the owls’ plumage.

It was also believed that the tiny goldcrests acted as pilots for the incoming woodcock which according to some legends, spend their summers on the moon, a serious theory that was still regarded as true during the eighteenth century which was further promulgated by the poet Pope who wrote: - ‘A bird of passage gone as soon as found Now in the moon perhaps, now underground.’ Perceptive words on the part of the poet for surely no bird is as well camouflaged. I don’t know how many times I have been startled by the sudden flight of a woodcock, previously unseen because of its wonderfully camouflaged appearance, but now springing from almost beneath my feet from the woodland leaf litter and flying just tens of yards before returning to the ground and simply disappearing before my very eyes.

Tradition tells us that woodcock return here en masse on All Hallows Eve – Halloween - all together on the same evening. Obviously, it is impossible to identify woodcock which have migrated here for the winter from those that spend their entire lives here but astonishingly, it is thought that as many as a million woodcock descend upon us each winter. Some may arrive in woodland near you. Spot the birdie – now you see it, now you don’t! If woodcock come to us to avoid serious frosts, as birds that find their food by prodding their long bills into the earth in their search for invertebrate life, they do get caught out when we have particularly severe frosts. Their answer to such a problem is often to then seek food close to roads that have been gritted, relying on the salt that overspills on to the verges to soften them sufficiently to enable the birds to prod into the now yielding ground. This tactic has its risks of course with traffic speeding by but they venture forth thus simply to find food and survive! It was once firmly believed that the woodcock had no brains – indeed to call someone a ‘woodcock’ was to imply that this was a brainless person – a theory based upon the fact that woodcock are very easily caught in traps.

However, the narrowness of the bird’s head with Its eyes set very much on the sides of that slender head, was also thought to leave no room for brains to be accommodated. However, they’re clearly brainy enough to work out that when the ground is frozen hard, the best place to search for food is where the salt has been spread! Not so brainless after all!

Weekly Nature Watch 01 Nov 19

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If ever there was a bird that is simply the epitome of wildness, surely that bird is the peregrine falcon. For one thing, this is the fastest of them all, achieving speeds in excess of 200 miles per hour in its dramatic stoop. If you are lucky enough to get close up to a peregrine, its gaze is enough to drop the temperature of one’s blood by a degree or two and you would certainly thank your lucky stars that you are not a member of the avian clan! For those down the centuries who have practiced the noble art of falconry, the peregrine is the king of all. That sheer speed makes it the very apple of the falconer’s eye.

Some time ago, I enjoyed a close encounter of a feathered kind when unexpectedly such a bird turned up in this neck of the woods. The bird flew in, perched on a fencepost and proceeded to swear at the surrounding countryside … for no apparent reason. Meanwhile, a buzzard partaking of its usual aerial patrol came gliding into view, no doubt innocently on the look out for stray voles or perhaps the odd bit of carrion. Buzzards drift across this lowland landscape regularly without any hassle. However, the sight of the buzzard seemed to enrage the falcon beyond reason and it took off from the fencepost and made a beeline for it.

It is easy to think of buzzards as relatively easy-going creatures. They sail about the sky appearing to be unconcerned for the most part … that is until a peregrine in a bad mood intervenes. And boy did it do that! It flew directly at the buzzard, so directly that the buzzard for a moment seemed utterly confused. Like a bullet the peregrine hurled itself at the bird, screeching as it did so and forcing the buzzard to call on all its reserve powers of flight to avoid a direct hit. It flipped first one way and then the other but to no avail as the peregrine having missed its target flew round in a tight circle and attacked again.

By now, I had the definite impression that the buzzard was in panic mode. Again, and again, the peregrine flew at the now utterly discombobulated buzzard which was soon seeking refuge in the branches of the ancient ash tree that adorns the fence-line between two fields. Undeterred, the peregrine continued to fly at the now miserable looking bird, which ducked each time the falcon made a pass until suddenly the fraught attacker wheeled away presumably to look for another target for its ire. Pausing briefly to perch on a nearby fence post and rattle off another volley of peregrine swear words, it then took off and flew away to make a nuisance of itself somewhere else. The buzzard lingered long enough to make sure the coast was clear, then also flew off, doubtless relieved that no contact had been made and that its assailant had gone!

And yet, you might just as well see such a peregrine flying between the buildings of a city as here in the countryside, by coastal cliffs or high up in the hills and mountains. For peregrines have sussed out that there is plenty of good eating to be had right in the middle of our cities in the form of substantial flocks of feral pigeons. Although some of these multi-coloured pigeons may owe some of their ancestry to the rock dove, their main progenitors are probably the pigeons, which for hundreds of years were kept in doo-cotes as a source of high protein meat. Up and down the country there are many old, ruined doo-cotes where once these birds were kept.

Famously they live in vast numbers in cities such as London and Glasgow and therefore that is where you will also find peregrine falcons, nesting perhaps on some surrogate cliff face such as one of the city high-rise concrete edifices. However, as far as I know, they don’t swoop down on Trafalgar Square to take the odd pigeon. In any case, Trafalgar Square seems to be almost permanently occupied by protestors of one sort or another these days. But, just as in Stirling’s City Centre you will often see flocks of pigeons flying round in their massed ranks, that is when the peregrines strike. If visitors to cities may find themselves fined if they proffer food to the feral pigeons that stalk the streets, peregrines are not penalized for their predation, which may in fact be welcomed by the city fathers!

My own peregrine watching experiences have however, not been above city centres but either along coastal cliffs or indeed, among the Scottish Hills and mountains. I well remember, not far away from here, watching a whole bunch of crossbills at first feeding on cones on the ground and extracting the seeds in their unique way before, as one, suddenly taking off and hurrying out over neighbouring fields in a typically tightly packed, undulating little flock. This was simply because a peregrine had taken off from the hill high above and soared over where they had been exploiting those fallen cones. The sight of what tor them must have signaled a deadly shape, was enough to send them into a panic, relieved only when they realized that the falcon, perhaps with other, larger prey in mind, was heading elsewhere. They turned and bounced back!

More amusing, way out on a group of islands off the west coast, was the sight of a family of ravens when a peregrine appeared high above. One of the adult ravens proceeded to roll over so that it was flying upside down – a curious sight – as if it were challenging the falcon to come and have a go but always with the afterthought of ‘just watch out for my very substantial beak’!

Another occasion enabled me to see from above, the passage of a peregrine which had taken off from a cliff face above me in a familiar glen and set of in pursuit of a little posse of wood pigeons far below in the glen. I had a super view and watched the peregrine descend towards the pigeons, accelerating all the time before eventually singling out and making a beeline for one of them before striking it, as if with a mailed fist, just behind the head. The pigeon, very dead, spiraled down to the floor of the glen, followed by the peregrine. Dinner had been well and truly served!

I haven’t ever seen a peregrine in Stirling’s City Centre. I’ve seen sparrowhawks and on the castle rock, kestrels. But it wouldn’t surprise me if from time to time there were incursions. I watched with some amusement a whole line of pigeons perched along roofs of a motley assortment of buildings the other evening. There are peregrines within a mile or so of them and clearly a very healthy food supply. Watch out, for in that line up were many breakfasts, luncheons and dinners for our neighbourhood peregrines!

Weekly Nature Watch 25 Oct 2019

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It is very tempting to say, “I told you so!” This week’s news that badgers in the areas of England where culls have been ordered by the Government, are dispersing over wider areas, roaming apparently far and wide, comes as no surprise. This is exactly what I predicted. Accordingly, bovine TB is now spreading! It is clear that the scientists who also predicted that this would happen have simply not been listened to. It is equally clear that those who advised Government to institute the cull with all its ramifications, knew very little about the way badgers conduct themselves!

Left to their own devices, badgers are normally creatures of habit, sticking to the same routes night after night and only visiting other neighbouring setts occasionally. The clear paths they make and follow provides plenty of evidence of the routines by which they live. Many years ago, when I would go badger watching on a nightly basis, I well remember an occasion when I was late setting out for my nightly vigil.

As I hurried along a well-trodden badger path in my efforts to reach my usual vantage point, I realized that a badger was following the same path but heading in the opposite direction - towards me! As there was a lively breeze blowing in my face, I quickly realized we were on collision course but as he approached, I held my ground, opened my legs wide and he passed through them, picking my scent up only as he reached the other side. In a flash, he rapidly dived into the thick vegetation beside the path and disappeared!

I also discovered during the following winter, that I could watch ‘my’ badgers by torch-light. Their sett faced towards the driveway of a large house which had become a catering establishment, so they had got used to car headlights shining directly at them. Thereafter, I spent many a winter’s evening happily watching the activities of this family of badgers in well illuminated light!

Sadly, policy towards badgers in some areas has become as familiar as has the pursuit of foxes on a more universal scale. I know a hill farmer who will not have a fox hunted on his land. His theory is that it is better to have a stable population of foxes on his land, accept the minimal lamb losses that are inevitable and leave the foxes largely alone. It is a known fact that the more the fox population is hassled, the more volatile it becomes … and the more damaging. Dog foxes establish territories in which perhaps three or four vixens reside. The vixens establish a ‘pecking order’ so that one becomes dominant and it is with that dominant vixen that the dog will mate, thus eventually producing one litter of cubs.

However, if the fox population is constantly hassled, the dog fox may mate with the other vixens too. The result? More litters of cubs. More foxes than ever! My hill farming friend is only too well aware of this and therefore leaves the foxes on his land strictly alone. Ironically, in a neighbouring glen, thousands of foxes are destroyed each and every year. The fact that the farmers and shepherds there have to kill so many foxes, is proof of the pudding. Stir them up and they become more agitated, more of a problem. No-one wins in this race. They kill more foxes and the foxes simply produce more cubs … a never-ending circle with ever high lamb losses!

And that is similar to what has happened with badgers in those cull areas. They have been stirred up and now wander much further than they used to, apparently visiting other setts more frequently and as a result, increasing the chances of becoming infected. Therefore, as they travel, so too does the disease.

Consequently, all the effort and all the money that has gone into the cull with its James Bond mentality of ‘licence to kill’ is utterly counterproductive with more, not fewer incidences of bovine TB springing up among cattle herds within these ‘targeted areas’. The obvious answer is clearly to stop the killing and instead turn to vaccination, which in the long term is much more likely to solve this dreadful problem and much more likely to banish bovine TB. There are no easy answers to the recurring problems of bovine TB but vaccination, given time might just be it!

Of course, this is not an event that occurs in Scotland. We are bovine TB free. The only incidents of the disease in Scotland recently, have been entirely due to the importation of diseased cattle. This salient fact serves to underline that this is a disease of cattle rather than of badgers. Amazingly, there has been no check whatsoever upon badgers that have been shot or indeed on badgers that have fallen victim on the roads to see whether or not any of them were carrying the disease. It is thought that only a small percentage of badgers carry bovine TB and they must have caught it from cattle in the first place!

The whole sorry business has caused much heartache and a good deal of bad blood between the farming community and conservationists. Most of us who have lived most of our lives in the countryside, cheek by jowl with farmers, are very much aware of the pain this pernicious disease causes. Farmers have been virtually wiped out by it and are therefore understandably desperate to get on top of it. A few areas have opted to vaccinate. Indeed, the Welsh Government has opted for that choice. Time will tell whether this is more successful. I for one, sincerely hope that vaccination may in the long term eliminate the disease altogether.

If you live in the sticks, the volume of noise may well have increased in recent days. The crackle of gunfire begins in earnest during October coinciding of course, with the start of the pheasant shooting season, not the third world war! It seems ludicrous to me that up to fifty million pheasants have probably been released into the British countryside during recent weeks. Of course, pheasants are not native to Britain or indeed to Europe; they are Asian in origin. However, the records indicate that it was the Romans who first introduced the pheasant to Britain. However, I suspect not in anything even like the numbers I have just quoted!

This mass release seems to me to be way over the top. Shooting may well be an important source of income for some landowners and of course, rearing pheasants and looking after them provides employment too. However, the release of such high numbers of pheasants into our countryside is naturally a cause of conflict. Where releases of pheasant poults on a large scale occurs, corvids, raptors and other predators will gather. If a food source suddenly appears, nature will quite naturally take advantage of it. You cannot expect the predators to understand that these birds are there for the pleasure of humans, who will on occasion simply shoot them. Much energy, therefore, goes into controlling the numbers of predators some of which, for example raptors, are of course afforded the protection of the law! The killing season is I’m afraid, a double edged sword! Keeping the balance is so vital.

Although the pheasants are well fed with grain, they soon begin to feed on native seeds as well, not to mention, insects and small reptiles. This clearly reduces the amount of food available for our wild birds. Thus, I fear an imbalance occurs. Furthermore, if you consider house sparrows to be quite commonplace, despite recently falling numbers, it is estimated that there are currently in the UK between six and seven million of them. Doesn’t that suggest that fifty million pheasants is excessive? I gather some fifteen per cent of these pheasants are shot and a similar number are killed on the roads. it does seem strange especially when it is remembered that the pheasants shot do not necessarily end up in the pot or indeed in food banks! Many of the carcasses are simply carted off to be disposed of without ever arriving upon a table!

It does seem to me that sometimes we fail to treat our countryside with any sort of reason or respect!

Weekly Nature Watch 18th Oct 2019

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There are those for whom bird-watching has become such an obsession that they are prepared to travel miles – sometimes from one end of the country to the other – to catch even a glimpse of a particularly rare bird, often small birds which have been blown off course during migration. We usually call such folk twitchers’! However, contact for most of us is with what one might call, the more commonplace species. Of course, these are mostly observed in gardens and especially those belonging to people prepared to spend time and money on food for the birds – an amazingly high percentage of householders across the UK.

Growing up in a leafy suburb, my introduction to our feathered friends came overwhelmingly in the shape of house sparrows and starlings albeit that under the tutelage of a maiden aunt who had been a ‘Nature Studies’ teacher, I soon learnt to identify blue-tits and great tits as well as robins, wrens, chaffinches and greenfinches. A fuse had definitely been lit and ever since a flame has burned within me which inevitably draws me towards the avian community. Naturally, I have joined the legions of folk who go to some lengths in order to attract birds to their gardens. However, I am not a twitcher! Despite the fact that it is now a long time since that leafy suburb was my home territory and that for many decades now, I have lived ‘in the sticks’, house sparrows still represent a remarkably high percentage of the birds with which I commune on a daily basis.

Despite recent reports that house sparrows are in serious decline, especially in urban and suburban areas, here they maintain an extremely healthy and of course an argumentative presence. However, there can be little doubt that the star of most bird-tables is undoubtedly the ubiquitous chaffinch, surprisingly second only to the wren in numbers in the UK.

The other common finches, which I see literally on a daily basis, are goldfinches and greenfinches, albeit that the latter has undoubtedly suffered quite serious decline in recent years. The other two – chaffinch and goldfinch – seem to have bucked the seriously downward population trend that has afflicted so many of our farmland birds. However, 2019 does seem generally to have been a good breeding year and that may partially be reflected in an increasing number of greenfinches having been a regular presence here in recent weeks.

Goldfinches may well have profited from the cash-flow stringencies placed upon councils which may have resulted in a lack of road verge cutting and a consequently super abundance of suitable weeds, the seeds of which are their preferred food sources. I’m sure they have also benefitted from the provision of feeds such as nyger seed and sunflower hearts in many gardens. Chaffinches too must have prospered in accordance with that wealth of food provided by garden bird-watchers, albeit that chaffinches are pretty catholic feeders anyway.

I would have thought that greenfinches might have similarly benefitted. After all they are equipped with exceptionally heavy bills, making them relatively versatile feeders. However, they do perhaps rely more heavily on seeds from ground-hogging weeds upon which both farmers and gardeners wage chemical warfare. This assault may well be the reason for the recent decline in numbers. Nevertheless, my own long-term observations of greenfinches have always left with me the impression that they tend to be somewhat bullish when visiting bird-tables, not easily discouraged from enjoying the richest pickings. So, it may have been thought that they might also buck the trend.

The reduction in their numbers, together with an alarming decline among other farmland birds, notably among them hereabouts, the yellowhammer, gives us fair warning that all is not well. As I’ve frequently said before, I remain very concerned about the types and indeed the amount of chemicals we use upon the land. Let’s make no bones about it, these are poisonous materials. They may be directed at the likes of weeds but clearly, they effect vitally and deleteriously, our populations of pollinators as well as our birds. A neat and tidy countryside is not necessarily a healthy one! The knock-on effects of chemical warfare may also harm many other forms of wildlife. And, what of us?

In a strange sort of way, the decline in farmland wildlife may also be connected to global warming and therefore brings my focus on to the current rash of ‘Extinction’ protests. I’m all for making a noise about these most serious of matters but as is so often the case, when protests disrupt people’s lives by preventing them from getting to work or sick people getting to hospital and requiring legions of police to control them, not to mention the costs involved, there is a distinct danger of making such protests counter-productive.

I therefore find myself in no man’s land with regard to the manner of these demonstrations and worry about the pervading influence of extremists. Instead, perhaps we should deluge all MPs and MSPs with countless letters urging them to take these matters seriously and do something to reverse the present trends, including looking increasingly intently upon the evidence and then legislating in such a way as to avoid poisoning the land. Way back in the nineteen sixties, Rachel Burden’s “Silent Spring” warned us of the dangers we were creating. There is an ominous resonance in today’s decline in some bird species and the advance of modern, increasingly intensive farming methods, together with rising temperatures and sea levels all of which are induced rather than natural events.

What can we learn about this impending crisis? Well, we can’t influence the weather so we can’t willfully reproduce the conditions that made the last summer a very productive one in terms of our wildlife. Even reducing carbon emissions is not going to have an immediate effect. If the scientists are right, we are now getting the bill, so to speak, for several hundred years’ worth of emissions. Furthermore, the biggest current polluters, China, India and America are where perhaps the protests should be happening. Can’t we as a human race get our act together? Eventually it will be our descendants who will pay the price.

But, back to our greenfinches. Hereabouts they are known as ‘peesies’ - not to be confused of course with lapwings, a soubriquet apparently derived from the finches’ vocalization, a long drawn out ‘wheeze’. Elsewhere, they rejoice in such names as ‘gross-beak’, a reflection of that sizeable bill, ‘green linnet’ and ‘green-bull’, the latter perhaps an expression of their aggression at bird-tables. It’s certainly good to see them back. I must say that the much smaller goldfinches definitely don’t give way to them but then goldfinches are feisty wee birds. However, let’s hope this is not merely a temporary recovery!

The fortunes of our wildlife may be regarded as peripheral by some or of very little interest to others. However, our wildlife provides a constant monitoring service as to the health of OUR environment. If they prosper, so does the environment and so do we! Do we really want silent springs

Any natural place contains an infinite reservoir of information, and therefore the potential for inexhaustible new discoveries.

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods