Weekly Nature Watch

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

Country View 19.1.16

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After all that turkey, we’re back to normal fare. Once more, fish and chips reigns supreme! Down the ages, fish has always been a very important part of the human diet. The chips perhaps, came later! I well remember from my schooldays, the taught tales of the ubiquitous herring; how for generations, fleets of trawlers followed the great shoals of herring round the British Isles and how whole communities were built upon the annual circumnavigation of these islands by those silver darlings.

There are many Scottish ports where it used to be said you could walk from one side of a harbour or even a bay to the other, across the decks of the fishing boats, when herring were ‘in season’. There were even stations built specifically to process the tons and tons of herrings landed. Even the uninhabited Summer Isles up there in the north-west, had at one time, a thriving population entirely dependent upon the annual presence of the legendary shoals o’ herring.

But then, the herring had gone. It is a tale which I’m afraid can be told too many times in the modern day – of chronic over-fishing which inevitably concludes with the demise or near demise of certain species. That is what happened to the herring. In that respect there is currently concern about the sharp decline of many of our seabirds. The fish, upon which they depend, have without doubt, diminished because of continuing over-fishing and also because of climate change. Warming seas due to this recent phenomena mean the fish seem to have translocated to other waters further to the north and thus beyond the range of most birds nesting on British shores.

Of course, for those perhaps rather less marine orientated birds which, rather than following the tides to battle with the sea in all its moods in order to feed, instead, elect to seek their scaly prey in calmer inland waters, such problems do not present themselves. Yet, those birds also all too often and almost inadvertently find themselves competing with mankind, at times thereforefinding that they are also threatened as a result!

I am not a fisherman and thus at times find myself slightly detached from that truly classless society which does pursue with utter dedication and of course, with rod and line, the creatures of the deep. There are surely, few more dedicated groups of people than those who are so utterly committed to that sport.  Yet the motives for such enthusiasm are not necessarily always the same. Some seem just to be driven by the desire to catch as many fish as possible, whilst others tell me that the attraction to them is simply the fact of being out in the wide open spaces … far away from the madding crowds, where whilst attempting to lure their victims to the hook, they can also enjoy all the other aspects of such locations, including the observation of other forms of wildlife.

I’m sure for instance, that most of those who dedicate themselves to luring rainbow trout from the depths of our local loch during the more benign months of the year, do not feel anything other than admiration for the ospreys which in the summer months, plunge so dramatically into those waters to seize the prized trout, perhaps more effectively than their tweed clad rivals! And yet, a hundred years ago, a so-called naturalist, shot what was apparently, the very last pair of these spectacular fishers to breed in Scotland.

Around that time of course, all predators were labelled as ‘the enemy’ and despatched at every available opportunity ….  including ospreys! The stocking of lochs and rivers with fish, quite naturally attracts those creatures for which such delights are a real means to an end – to survival – rather than something they enjoy doing! That is of course, the real difference behind their presence in such circumstances, in much the same way as other predators respond to the annual introduction of millions of pheasants to the British countryside.

This is for them not sport but instead a bonanza of life sustaining food. Do not be diverted from this certain truth by the tales you might hear, of animals killing ‘for the sake of killing’! In the wild there is no such waste of time and energy! We alone, it seems to me, derive pleasure from such slaughter!

So, while the recent sightings of goosanders on our loch, although delighting me (for they are very attractive birds) they may well have raised the blood pressure of any passing fishermen. Goosanders are very efficient fishers and frequently take in particular, young trout and salmon. Their efficiency is enhanced by a curious and almost unique physical characteristic which classifies them as sawbills – curiously enough, the local pseudonym for these quite large, feathered fishers.

Observation of a goosander, reveals the male at a distance to be a striking black and white bird albeit that the head is in reality a delicious bottle green, whilst the female is perhaps more nondescript, grey of the body with a tan coloured head and upper neck. This may give the impression of a large duck without the typically flattened bill. Indeed the red beak is instead, narrow and un-duck-like which on closer inspection is decorated with what appear to be teeth! In fact the edges of the bill are serrated, thus giving a mistaken appearance of teeth, an accoutrement which enables the bird to more securely retain a grip on its slippery prey. This almost unique provision provides another example of Nature’s ingenuity when it comes to design!

The sheer efficiency of the goosander and its predilection for young trout and salmon has automatically alienated it with fishermen and by the middle of the nineteenth century when field sports were rapidly growing in popularity, the goosander seems to have disappeared from Scottish waters altogether. However, in 1871, a first record of breeding goosanders appeared in Argyll and Perthshire, doubtless attracted by the increasing practice of the stocking of lochs and rivers. Despite continuing persecution, the number of goosanders present in Scotland slowly rose until by 1992 nearly three thousands of them were recorded, augmented by an increasing presence south of the border.

They have always been persecuted and at one time bounties were paid on their destruction. They were however, in theory given protection under the provisions of the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act. Whilst they do certainly prey upon young trout and salmon such predation should be set against the fact that salmon may lay as many as 15,000 eggs which I would have thought would guarantee quite comfortably, the survival of the species!

Goosanders therefore inevitably arouse the antagonism of fisher folk although not perhaps with the vitriol the arrival of a cormorant on inland fishing waters might inspire. These apparently marine birds have shown their ability to suss out the presence of good feeding far away from the rolling waves of the ocean and they may be seen, almost like haggard scarecrows, drying out their wings on the shores of many of our local lochs and rivers. There is much to admire in both these birds, both of them renowned divers and underwater hunters. The goosander may often be seen with its head under water in its efforts to locate the fish upon which it hopes to dine.

They are and have to be, far more efficient at catching fish than are we. Their very existence depends upon such skills, whilst we only need to catch fish to satisfy a long held but now not strictly necessary emotion.

Country View 13.1.16

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Our awareness of the presence of birds during the mid-winter months is perhaps dominated by the throngs of them we see feeding in our gardens during the all too brief hours of daylight. Elsewhere our contact with the avian classes is often only manifested in the flocks of mixed crows – usually rooks and jackdaws - which, sometimes in surprising numbers, spend many of these winter days stalking the fields in their search for a cornucopia of succulent invertebrates.

Most of the wee beasties that fall victim to these black hordes are of course, significant pests, destroyers of our farmland crops. Despite a dubious reputation, influenced perhaps by their black colouration, in many minds, whether by instinct or by rational thought, a condemnation in itself, such gatherings should be recognised for the benefits that accrue from their presence. The bare fact is that these ‘crows’ eagerly consume uncountable numbers of otherwise unseen creepy crawlies, an antidote surely to the usual expressions of displeasure that all too often greet such gatherings.

Otherwise our awareness of an avian presence may be most likely registered both visually and audibly, in the highly mobile, rampaging flocks of winter visiting redwings and fieldfares as they noisily hurtle across the landscape together with, where they are present, the garrulous skeins of visiting geese. Not so this winter, for in this airt at least, there are not many geese to count. In their absence, the loudest avian sounds likely to register here generally emanate from those hordes of ravening crows.

In January of course, we inhabit a world still dominated by darkness and indeed therefore, one that is largely silent. Thus far, in spite of the winter’s mildness to date and notwithstanding reports from the south of flowering daffodils, there has been no apparent urge to offer early greetings to forthcoming spring; no great tits offering early challenges … only the cascades of tinkling notes from cock robin. Redbreast apart, our world outside is largely silent!

The days, very evidently remain short and although since the passing of the winter solstice there has been an almost imperceptible improvement in this respect, as yet it is so inconsequential as to be rendered almost unnoticeable! Thus there are substantially more hours of darkness than of light, when it seems, silence dominates. Yet on occasions, silence is actually golden. Indeed, on one such murky evening, a brief glimpse of a silent denizen of the night, reminded me that silence is not just golden; it is silver and white too! My sighting was of a barn owl!

Sadly such a sighting hereabouts, is these days quite rare for barn owls are certainly not as numerous here as once they were. A poor vole year, which 2015 evidently was, does not help, for barn owls are heavily reliant upon these ubiquitous little creatures for food. Indeed, the number of youngsters they are able to successfully rear to fledging, is entirely dependent upon small rodent availability and in particular upon those voles.

It was ever thus! But of course, in days of old, we did not perhaps manicure our landscape in the way we do now. In our quest to make every acre as productive as possible, much of the rough or fallow land has disappeared along with miles and miles of hedgerow which are so vital to the presence of these little rodents. Thus a substantial reduction in rodent populations has a knock on effect and a deleterious impact upon those creatures that depend on them. There are for instance undoubtedly fewer kestrels around too!

These, the kestrel and the barn owl, are amongst my favourite birds. I have always admired the aerial artistry of the kestrel; the wonderfully controlled hover during which every part of the bird’s body may move … but the head. And I have always admired the buoyant, moth-like flight of the barn owl as it hunts; and have been captivated by its aerial agility as it ducks and dives … so silently! And it is that silence when it is hunting which is perhaps one of the most unique assets of a creature that is one of the most globally widespread of all birds. The barn owl is resident in every one of the world’s continents save for the Antarctic.

The silent flight of the barn owl is one of its prime assets as a hunter of small creatures. This silence is affected by virtue of the bird’s amazing design. The leading edges of its wings are equipped with comb-like fringes which streamline the air as the bird flies, upwards over the wings. In addition the trailing edges of the wings are embellished with a hair-like fringe which further diffuses the noise made by wing movement. The effect is that not only does the bird therefore approach its prey in silence – almost like the silence that pervades the gentle but silent fall of snowflakes upon the landscape – but it also means that its own fantastically tuned hearing remains undisturbed. A barn owl by the way, hunts as much through its acute sense of sound as through its sight which is also of course, far superior to ours.

I used quite often to see barn owls patrolling along roadside verges, floating like butterflies, as a famous boxer once said, but stinging like bees! However I have also, down the years, seen all too many of these beautiful birds lying dead by those roadsides. Modern day traffic is I’m afraid, too swift and indeed, uncompromising. One silent flap too near the tarmacadam can I’m afraid, be fatal. 

It is over farmland that you may be most likely to see barn owls, especially around dusk and dawn. Farmers of course, long ago recognised the value of encouraging barn owls to nest in their buildings, understanding that owls were beneficial for their predation upon the rodents with which those who have stored grain, have for time immemorial waged war. Indeed it was common practice in days long gone, when farm buildings were being designed, to ensure the inclusion of nesting provision for them. Modern rodent proof grain silos and modern farm buildings built largely of steel and panels are, as you might understand, not conducive to barn owl nesting.

Indeed, the conversion of so many farmhouses and steadings to modern, up-market rural housing has also legislated against barn owls, denying them many suitable nesting sites. In that respect I guess, like sparrows, barn owls, down the ages, have often lived their lives largely cheek by jowl with people. However, there was also a time when superstition reigned supreme to such an extent that it was often the grisly custom to nail the body or even parts of a slaughtered owl to the doors of barns as a means of repelling evil spirits!

Owls, being creatures of the night, have always in people’s superstitious minds been shrouded in mystery, an emotion not necessarily so surprising when transmitted by the rather ghoulish vision of a barn owl flitting like a gigantic moth and thus easily seen as a phantom, through the half-light of dusk, abruptly appearing and disappearing as it flies behind trees and then suddenly re-appearing.

My evening was therefore suddenly and briefly lit up by this silent spirit.  As our Gaelic speaking ancestors would have called it, this was the Cailleach-oidche gheal, ‘the white old woman of the night’! That brief encounter fills me with great expectations of further sightings of this delicious white lady of the shadows!

Country View 5.1.16

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A partridge in a pear tree – something I’ve never seen and am unlikely ever to see, for partridges are extremely terrestrial birds - six geese a laying, seven swans a swimming, several reindeer, one with a shiny, red nose, charging across a starlit sky, hauling THAT sleigh and the inevitable robin, are among the most popular images we sing about or indeed, peruse as we look at the rows of greetings cards that have conveyed messages to us from every airt, at this festive season. There are many other birds and animals depicted on those cards but none of them, save the turkey perhaps, are quite as traditional at Christmas time, as redbreast. And now it’s all over! All that wrapping paper to be re-cycled!

Some of us, over the course of this Yuletide, will have over eaten; others may have coveted such avarice whilst food banks have all too sadly probably been well trodden. As Burns once famously wrote, “Some hae meat but canna eat, and some would eat that want it.” It has I suppose, been ever thus, yet the widening gap between the have’s and have not’s in a world so full of technology and wealth tells a sad story of the inability of human kind to think universally and provide for those most in need. In a world replete with riches, why are people are still dying of starvation? The Christmas message rails against such inequality!

Meanwhile, the host of feathered friends feasting on the offerings I provide represent a glimmer of light against the gathering gloom and the backdrop of plummeting numbers among farmland birds that is becoming increasingly apparent. Thank goodness that so many folk spend a surprising amount of money on feeding the birds, when set against the background of the aforementioned human suffering.

There is perhaps, a real irony in the millions of pounds annually spent in this country on the purchase of food for garden birds, yet such benevolence is in my view, wholly justified for it is almost certainly human activity that puts so much downward pressure on our wildlife. It is I’m sure, in our own long term interests that we do everything we can to protect and support wildlife, for the insects, plants, birds and animals with which we share our environment are I warrant, just as important in their own way, as the human population.

Indeed, there are plenty of historic events in which the fortunes or otherwise, of wild birds and animals have provided serious warnings of life threatening events which, had such warnings not been heeded, might well have had catastrophic effects upon us. The dangers presented by the wide-scale use of DDT in the immediate post war years for instance, emerged through the sudden slump in breeding success among some raptors such as peregrine falcons and sparrow hawks. Suddenly, science realised that as much as such raptors were at the top of the food chain, so were we! So if the birds were being poisoned, we could be next on the ‘hit list.  DDT was promptly banned!

Thus, there may be more than a grain of truth in the suspicion that inevitably lingers in my mind, that some of the pesticides which have become such an integral part of farming practises, may be partly responsible for the reduction in populations of birds which were once commonplace but which are now under threat. Such suspicions I’m sure, are among the driving forces behind the development of genetically modified crops.

It is a contentious issue which generates deep emotions in both the pro and anti-camps and there are of course, commercial issues and interests to take into account. But increasingly I find myself wondering if such science, which by implication would substantially reduce the amount of chemicals these days routinely used to increase crop production, is fully taken into account.

Frankly, I very much question the depth and extent of proper research into how much the long term effects of the saturation of farmland with these largely synthetic materials are understood. In particular I feel considerable concern about the apparently negative effect some chemicals are having on our bees, so vital in the process of pollination. We should not and must not go on ignoring these warnings.

If, as highlighted recently, curlews, lapwings and the like are to survive in the face of apparently alarming reductions in their numbers, this significant change of direction may be one way of halting these worrying declines. I am not a scientist so I can only hope that these downward trends can one way or another, be reversed. Science can tell us what the long term risks are and these issues are important enough to override short term commercial interests.

However, all that said, I must say that if the avian activity in my garden is anything to go by, blue tits and great tits are not on the danger list! Surprisingly, none of my Christmas cards are adorned with images of blue tits, for these surely, are amongst the most readily recognised and the most popular of all our garden birds. Once perhaps regarded as a woodland bird, the blue tit is now primarily a garden resident, more than willing to live cheek by jowl with human kind and surely one of the great entertainers. In fact, you may just find that they’re providing better entertainment than the box!

Indeed, this little tomtit is one of the avian world’s most adept acrobats, clinging on quite happily upside down to the bags or baskets of nuts. This supremely agile little fellow, its little yellow body pert and neat, its wings and tail blue, its back merging into a metallic green and its white face, noted incidentally for its prominent eye stripe, topped by a jaunty little blue cap, is surely one of all time garden favourites.

In fact there’s rather more to that cap than may meet the human eye for it is apparently, in the male, a significant feature which plays a leading role in attracting a female partner. As is the case in most birds, the cap of the male is, to start with, brighter than that of the female. The brighter the cap of the beau, the more attractive he is to the belle! Our lack of visual access to the UV spectrum, denies us the chance to assess the true brightness of that cap whereas to female blue tits, that cap fairly glows with pulsating colour.  ‘If the cap fits ….!’

However, she will also take note of the brightness of her suitor’s yellow breast. Again she has the advantage of being able to discern that brightness via the UV spectrum and she knows that a male with a brighter yellow breast is likely to be able to capture a bigger haul of caterpillars to feed to her young when they reach that vital stage of their brief life cycle. Science sometimes examines some strange things and this is one of them!

No bird surely better expresses the happy mood of Christmas than the little blue tit!

Country View 16.12.15

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Of white Christmases I am not dreaming! There are those for which however, a white Christmas would not be a nuisance but instead perhaps, a life saver. White hares, which some readers may be surprised to know, are our only truly native hares, brown hares having long ago been imported, depend very heavily on the transmogrification of their fur, at this time of the year from brown to white. This dramatic change is triggered by the shortening of daylight hours and gives the hares anonymity, once their native upland heaths succumb to winter snows, providing a defence of obfuscation and thus a chance of eluding even the sharpest eyed eagle, which is of course, their main predatory enemy.

Mountain hares are not of course, the only creatures afforded this change as a means of evading predators, or in the case of the stoat, when it converts to a white pelage and becomes ermine, concealment perhaps from those it pursues as much as from those which might pursue it, Curiously, The tip of the animal’s tail, when such pelage change occurs, stubbornly remains black! The trio of those creatures donning white clothes as winter descends is completed by the ptarmigan, a member of the grouse family seldom seen in terrain below the two thousand foot contour. This mysterious mountaineering bird however, goes through various phases of plumage, which it changes four times during the year.

The image of a white Christmas despite current temperatures remaining unseasonably high persists, especially on the Christmas cards now tumbling through my letterbox. In spite of the considerable change which this, the most significant of our Christian festivals, has undergone since I waited breathlessly and thankfully asleep (!) for the red cloaked Santa to arrive on Christmas Eve, today’s high tech Christmas with its galaxy of electronic gadgets, is not I suppose, that far removed from the ones I remember, especially those in which the electric model railway was at the top of my list of great expectations! Mind you, the operation of that prized gift was simple enough even for my non-technical brain whereas the vast array of gismos now coveted by today’s more technologically minded ten year olds.

At a glance, on my mantelpiece currently, are depicted a variety of wintry scenes, some suitably sparkly, others picturing reindeer pulling sleighs over the snow or alternatively across the sky and deer lurking shyly among the trees as well as the usual array of fir trees and holly and ivy, not to mention a handful of Dickensian Christmas images, all glinting in a landscape inevitably coated with snow. Yet significantly, an absolute plethora of robin redbreast images dominates this year’s gallery. So one tradition at least, seems to be holding its own! Redbreast has probably been one of the most popular images for the designers of Christmas cards for the best part of a hundred and fifty years now and this year, he seems to have rocketed back to the top of the Christmas card pops!

As it happens, on recent days, during my morning rounds, I have been accompanied by a solitary caroller. But this is no surplice clad choirboy. He is a tuneful and feathered, glowingly red breasted chorister whose music is both sweet and warming. And of course, because he is alone as a songster during these shortening winter days, his music stands out amidst a blanket of silence save for the occasional and very much coarser yelling of passing skeins of pink-footed geese and the regular, chirped quarrels of the sparrows. By comparison these offerings, such as they are, represent a more raucous tone.  Redbreast on the other hand, typically blurts out those little volleys of sweet notes, not necessarily in a melodic order, for I always have the impression that robins never know quite which notes are coming next when they sing. Constructed, pre-ordained music is not their way!

He is a very welcome caroller however and as befits a bird which has been one of the images of the traditional Christmas for so long, his place on the mantelpiece is naturally, well deserved. He came to find himself cast in that image because of an association with the very first postmen back in the nineteenth century. Those postie’s wore a uniform, the most prominent feature of which was a vermillion waistcoat. Inevitably they were instantly dubbed ‘robins’ and not surprisingly, the image of robins on some of the earliest of Christmas cards became endemic, often incidentally, portrayed brandishing little envelopes in their beaks. Such are the images which have earned these bold and attractive little birds their own very special place in Yuletide history.

The robin had however, already been established as a very special bird in the early days of Christianity when in the sixth century, the student later to become known as St Kentigern, the founder of Glasgow Cathedral, was said to have restored his pet robin to life after it had been killed by his fellow students. Such was the strength of this story that a robin appears on that city’s coat of arms, where he is described as a ‘robin proper’!

The apparent willingness of robins to confide with human kind does it seems, give them a very special place in British hearts although strangely, Continental robins are for some reason, much less confiding and thus less willing to live cheek by jowl with humans. Here they regularly make their nests in such cast offs as old kettles or plant pots and even are regularly known to build their nests in the likes of garden sheds. They can also be an eager presence in gardens, especially if someone is digging as they are always ready willing and able to dine upon the creepy crawlies thus unearthed by the spade.

But there is another, less complimentary side to the robin coin! Yes, he does sing on the dullest of winter days and is usually the only songster during the bleak mid-winter months but those little bursts of song, though sweet on the human ear, are in reality, a distinctly threatening signal to other cock robins, not to enter the songster’s territory … on pain of mortal combat and in some cases a fight to the death.

Such behaviour is I guess, not exactly in the true spirit of Christmas as we see it. Behind the tinsel, the ringing cash tills, the sales blurb, all the electronic gadgets and the flashing lights, the true spirit of Christmas is surely in essence, a message of peace and love, a celebration of the birth of the Christ Child. Redbreast’s attitude is the very opposite; “What’s yours is mine and what’s mine is my own” is his Christmas message, unyielding and unforgiving; full of aggression and the very antithesis of that genre of peace and love.

And yet we nevertheless deeply love and admire that perpetrator of such sweet song, that caroller supreme …  and we adore that bright, distinguished and very audible, truly musical intervention that leaps from the red breast of this attractive bird, He further endears himself visually with those big, appealing, brown eyes. He may in truth be a doughty defender of his own very personal faith yet surely, beneath it all, his is a cheery celebration to be shared – his Christmas greeting to us all. He provides us with a much sweeter sound than all the razzmatazz and jazz of the modern Christmas. Nor should we forget that in long standing folklore, the robin and the wren are God Almighty’s cock and hen!

Country View 9.12.15

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Each day of Advent that passes and each window or door we may open, moves us of course, a day nearer Christmas, a festival which according to today’s outpourings in some sections of the media is soon likely to become obsolete! I don’t think so! I suspect it highly unlikely that this huge bonanza for the retail trade is close to being cast aside now, or indeed, at any other time in the foreseeable future.

I make no apologies for such cynicism. Christmas is surely here to stay for one obvious, perhaps jaundiced reason, yet it will I believe, endure because it actually does remain for so many of us, as a vitally important celebration of a very significant event and indeed as an event of supreme optimism at a time when otherwise darkness, in more ways than one, pervades! Furthermore I personally hope that not only the festival itself but the spirit of Christmas may remain with us well beyond the foreseeable future! In a troubled world, we surely need that optimism!

However, there is nevertheless, a dark shadow casting its gloom across my psyche at the present time when I read of the dramatic and alarming decline of so many of our most popular and easily recognised birds, amongst them, the curlew. The optimism that is surely at the very heart of the season of re-birth, when Nature signals the miraculous renewal of the cycle of life, or to put it more simply, spring finally emerges from the torpor of winter, is heralded by many sights and sounds, not least among them, the sound of the curlew.

And if, despite the calamitous events of recent days with record amounts of rain, floodwaters raging through dwellings and Christmas therefore having to be put on hold by those unfortunate enough to have fallen victim to the vicissitudes of the appalling weather, talk of forthcoming spring may seem premature to say the least, it may not in truth be long before those first inevitable signs of the advance of the seasons, as we approach the winter solstice, begin to manifest themselves.

Whilst there may be much winter and of course, wintry weather to come, in less time than you might imagine, some of those signs of change – for the better – could well be revealing themselves. Once January dawns for instance, I shall be listening for the first assertive pronouncements by great tits, sure signs that a new year is awakening from its slumbers in more senses than one and that territorial ambitions are already arising within those feathered breasts. Yet even in the light of such apparent optimism, reports of the serious decline of the curlew amongst others, saddens me beyond belief.

Those evocative whistling, bubbling  notes that are the unmistakable hallmarks of this iconic wader, have always instantly transported me back to joyful, youthful days and my first real adventures into the great outdoors, its otherwise desolate and seemingly empty moors and its shapely hills. Those early experiences of life in that unique environment have inexorably shaped the direction of my life thereafter and so the curlew and its vocal musings have always had a significant resonance in my soul.

Judging by the first cards that have dropped through my letter-box during the past few days, redbreast remains firmly ensconced as the bird of Advent. And similarly, that same status remains fixed in my mind with regard to the curlew, except this is in contrast, the bird representative of the advent of spring rather than of Christmas. Thus, its current designation as the bird of highest conservation priority in the UK comes as something of a shock, for I cannot rid my memory of the delightful bubbling of curlews that always accompanied those first boyhood expeditions in tackety boots.

Sharing this distinctly dubious pessimistic classification is the nightingale, a plain looking little bird which, according to a familiar lyric, once sang in London’s Berkeley Square. Here is a bird which restricts its British explorations very much to the southern reaches of the UK. Hence it was only during the early months of my National Service, that I listened to this remarkable songster, I might say with wonder, from the comfort (or otherwise) of a standard army ‘pit’! Its music was spell-binding, not least because it was heard in the splendid isolation of darkness, when no other birds sang.

Of the other birds deemed to be in serious decline are seabirds such as the kittiwake and the puffin, birds with which, down the years, I have enjoyed close company and which rely heavily upon sand eels. It is suggested that these shoals of tiny fish have been over fished on the one hand and have otherwise, de-camped to waters more northern and distant due to the warming of our seas, in turn caused by global warming. Two things immediately occur; the shortage of sand eels is directly or indirectly caused by human activity, leading inevitably to the decline in puffins and kittiwakes, whilst the severe downturn in nightingale and curlew numbers can also most likely be attributed to the way we these days, manage the landscape.    

One thing strikes me. The significant and worryingly swift decline in these bird populations in recent times, the main causes of which we remain largely ambivalent, or at best indifferent to, are actually more important to us than you may realise. Indeed, they are surely warning signals in much the same way that the decline in peregrine and hawk populations shortly after the Second World War signalled to us that something was wrong. That decline was of course, discovered to be due to the wide-scale use of DDT, which was passing through the food chain and killing those at the top of that chain, the predators.

The scientists quickly realised that we too were at the top of the food chain and that we were also therefore, in the firing line! Thus it is not in any way flippant to say that the health of our environment and of course, all its constituent parts, is our ‘safety net’. It seems logical therefore that we ignore such warnings, very much at our peril. I personally find it both alarming and ironic that whilst these bird populations are declining at an alarming rate – house sparrows have by the way, declined in recent years in urban areas where they have traditionally been strong, by some 60 per cent and in rural areas by 50 per cent – pheasants, birds of the east originally introduced here apparently by the Romans – continue to flood into the British landscape.

Currently the house sparrow population, regarded universally as the commonest of birds, is estimated at just over five million pairs, say in excess of ten million birds, yet recent figures suggest that no fewer than 35 million pheasants will have been released –this year alone - into the British landscape. Furthermore a further 35 million will presumably be released again next year and so on and so forth! Only fifteen million such birds are shot each year, so that leaves an awful lot of surplus birds. Not, I might humbly suggest, a sensible balance. And I’m not even going to mention the number of birds and animals killed in order to protect those pheasants!

Perhaps we should be spending a little more time, not to mention money, on learning why there are so many fewer curlews and rather less time and indeed, money on rearing such vast numbers of non-native birds which are in any case, destined to be shot. But then I suppose, there are the turkeys too! 

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods