My first bird-memory is of the call of a cuckoo as my brothers and I walked a footpath with our mother across a Surrey downland field of tall grass and wild flowers under a blue sky . . . . . . .
I was four years old at the time. I may therefore miss-remember completely about the grass, the flowers, the blue sky – and even about who was there – but I am quite sure about the cuckoo. Its call rang on the air – uncomplicated, clear and insistent. Two notes only. It imprinted itself on to my child’s mind. A voice impossible to hear and not to remember.
Pity then that these days I usually have to strain to decide if it is indeed some distant cuckoo calling. I must listen to be sure it’s not, for example, a distant collared dove, or an even more distant emergency services siren. Both can easily mislead, at a distance, when one longs to hear the real thing. Since the early 1980s Cuckoo numbers in the UK have dropped by two thirds. No one knows quite why. Now even those who live in rural parts may no longer have April unmistakably announced in the traditional manner.
The decline in Cuckoos is a serious loss. But there have been gains too. Buzzards for instance. As a teenager one of the great excitements of our annual holidays to the West Country or to Wales was the sighting of buzzards perched on roadside fence-posts and telegraph poles. We competed to be the first to spot them. We never saw them at home in South Hampshire at that time – the late 60s and early 70s. On one holiday in mid Wales I even had a young buzzard captive. The local sheep dog had found it grounded after a storm and the farmer brought it home and housed it in an old pig sty. I attached a small chain to its leg and had it perch on my hand like a falcon. I planned to take it home with me, but one morning I found the door ajar and the bird gone. The farmer had no doubt thought it was better back in the wild. And so it was.
Now I only have to step out of my door – in South Hampshire – to see buzzards wheeling and mewing above me, soaring high over our meadow and over the woods, or sat on the electricity poles with an eye on the rabbits below.
Another gain is Little Egrets. I happened to walk down to the stream that runs at the bottom of our fields one January day at the beginning of 1996. It was cold and the ground was half-frozen. I had previously disturbed a couple of snipe there three days in succession and watched them speedily zig-zag away. They only ever turned up in freezing weather, presumably when it was too inhospitable down on the Solent coast. I expected I might disturb them again. I was astonished instead by the vision of a brilliant white egret as it leapt from the stream and flapped away on arched wings and landed in the further field.
I was nonplussed for more than a moment. This was a familiar bird. I had seen hundreds of them. And taken photos of them. But that was in India, not in Hampshire. I rang our local bird reserve to report my sighting and to seek enlightenment. It was the third report they had received that day. Little Egrets had been common along the coast for some time, I was told. However, this was the first time they’d received reports of them being inland. Like the snipe, presumably, the weather had driven them away from the coast.
This was the beginning of an invasion. Later that year, and since, I have seen them along every local river, including our modest stream, and not only in the winter but also in summer. They have moved in, taken up residence and made themselves at home.
Except that I have not seen our brook lampreys for a number of years . . . .
We used to catch brook lampreys with a hand-net in the river Meon, along with bullheads , sticklebacks, young trout, and occasionally an elver. Brook lampreys are five or six inches long (15 centimetres) and eel-like, except that they have a strange, circular sucker-mouth. We thought they were the young of the famous fish-sucking sea lamprey, just as an elver is the young of the eel. We were wrong.
I only discovered our error years later when I found that there were lampreys in our stream. I was standing in the flow one day in my wellington boots when I suddenly noticed three small wriggling forms at my feet. They were attached to stones on the river bed, but then they would be swept off by the current. But not for long. They quickly wriggled back upstream and re-attached themselves. I guessed at once that they were lampreys. But what could they be feeding on ? This was our third year here, but I had seen no sign of any fish of any kind in our stream. I caught the lampreys easily in a small net and took them back in a bucket to the house to be studied. They were brook lampreys – Lampetra planeri. And I soon found my answer as to their food. They don’t eat. At all. That is, the adult brook lamprey – which is what these were – doesn’t eat. What happens instead is that they spend from three to five years as larvae buried in the bed of the stream, filtering food from the passing current. The adult then emerges and only lives long enough to mate, a matter of a few weeks, and never feeds.
After that first discovery I found them in the stream every April and May. They were easy to spot. On the one hand their wriggling gave them away. On the other hand, so did their habit of creating a shallow, saucer-sized depression in the pebble bed of the stream by way of a ‘nest’. I watched as an individual picked up pebbles one by one with its sucker-mouth and put them to one side. At the end of the exercise there was a round patch of newly exposed – and therefore algae-free – stones which contrasted very clearly with the surrounding stream-bed. No reasonable egret could possibly miss it. Or heron come to that, which also visit our stream regularly, throughout the year.
I look out for our lampreys every spring. I have not seen any since the egrets arrived. I also look out for eels. I disturbed half grown eels a couple of times in our first years here. Not any more. No sign of them. But that is another well known mystery ( like cuckoos) – the collapse of the eel population throughout Europe.
We have never had resident Nightingales here but, until recently, they were always to be found in a friend’s garden hardly two miles away. I would go there to listen to them in April and May at dusk. Sometimes they would be skulking invisibly in the undergrowth of an overgrown orchard as they sang, but often they were quite visible, perched in a hedgerow tree, silhouetted against the fading light. They’ve not been seen or heard there now for the last five years. Whitethroats used to nest every year in the tangle of brambles beside the railway line that forms one boundary of our property, or in the stand of tall, white flowered meadowsweet in our bottom field. They still appear some years, but they’ve not nested for at least a decade. The skylark that sang above the field on the other side of the railway line has not been heard or seen since the year they ploughed up the pasture and grew corn, even though its been back to pasture ever since.
It has to be said, in the nearly twenty years we’ve lived here, there have been more losses than gains.
In fact, according to ‘The State of the UK’s Birds 2012’ , the country lost 44 million breeding birds between 1966 and 2012. There were some 210 million birds nesting with us in 1966; by 2012 there were only 166 million. That is a decline of nearly one fifth. Furthermore, the great majority of that loss was of farmland birds, with woodland birds coming in second. Our home is surrounded by farmland and woods.
1966, by the way, was the year we first came to live in Hampshire, just after I started birdwatching (see Beginnings). That is to say, birdwatching has apparently been in the process of becoming more and more difficult ever since I chose to pursue it as a hobby.
The 2012 report notes in particular the unexplained decline of the House Sparrow. Not so much a decline, in fact, as a plummet. There were some 30 million of the charming blighters in 1996; about 10 million in 2012. However, I am pleased to report that we have a steady if small resident population here – a dozen or so birds during the winter, twice that after they’ve bred in the summer. They used to nest in the attic, but plastic improvements to the fascias and soffits seem to have put an end to that option. Indeed, such improvements have been suggested as one reason for the House Sparrow’s decline. However, my observation is that they have not let this put them off. They have found new sites, such as in the ivy on the house wall and on the bat-box under the porch, which they never used before. Of course it is possible that these sites are less successful in terms of the numbers of young raised.
My suspicion, however, is that it is changes in agricultural practices which are most to blame, at least here in rural parts. You might think of the House Sparrow as a bird of human habitations rather than of farmland, but in winter they used to be out on the fields gleaning the stubble, as well as always raiding the spillage and stores around the farm. Agriculture is much tidier these days. Modern varieties of wheat do not drop their seeds if harvested correctly, so there is nothing left to glean. In any case, as soon as the summer crop is harvested, the ground is ploughed and winter wheat is sown. Meanwhile, back at the farmyard, the corn may be nowhere to be seen because it went straight from the field to the processor. The cattle in the yard are fed on pellets.
Starlings, I suggest, is a similar story. They too have undergone an unexplained population crash over the period – a loss of some 25 million birds. The crowds that used to be seen passing over around here morning and evening in winter have vanished. Fortunately we have a few Starlings still as well as Sparrows. Most years a pair breed in the hollow apple tree in the garden a few yards from our kitchen window. First they are busy with nesting material, then they are busy with food. Soon there are gaping mouths to be seen even as the adults fly in.
My theory is supported by the observation that the greatest decline in farmland birds occurred between the late seventies and the early nineties, just when the above mentioned farming practices were being introduced – around these parts anyway. Other farmland birds which nest on grassland – skylarks, lapwings, grey partridges – will have been hit by the practice of harvesting of grass for silage. Whereas hay is cut in June/July, for silage-making the grass is cut green in April/May, while the birds are still nesting.
The theory might be contradicted by the report that Wood Pigeons numbers have exploded, by approximately seven million birds. It is both a woodland and a farmland bird, not to mention a common garden bird nowadays, which it did not used to be. Therein perhaps lies a clue to its success – it is versatile. But it is also a gleaner and a major feeder on farmer’s field, and in fact continues to be so. The reason, perhaps, is again a matter of changes in farming practices, but here to the Wood Pigeon’s advantage. Winter wheat provides green shoots and so too does the now ubiquitous oil-seed rape, sown in the autumn and feasted upon by wood pigeons in the winter. I walked a rape field recently where the pigeons had reduced two thirds of the field to defoliated stumps, and they hadn’t finished, because when I returned two days later they’d completed three quarters of the field. (Mind you, in the spring the crop completely recovered).
By the way, if you wondered why I called the House Sparrows ‘blighters’ earlier on, it is because, even as I scatter the corn in the chicken run each morning, they are immediately there to snatch it. Of course that may also be why we have a healthy population of House Sparrows – whose loss I would regret. Also, to answer my despondency at the growing difficulty of being a birdwatcher from the moment I started, the 2012 report also shows that the numbers of over-wintering water birds – wildfowl, waders, sea-birds – have increased by over 90% since 1975/6. Given that we live not five miles from The Solent , one of the UK’s major overwintering bird areas, there have in fact been plenty of birds to be seen. Such as Brent Geese – underfoot – as I have noted previously.
It is not all about birds however. Consider the hedgehog. When we first moved in to our present property I would often find a hedgehog hibernating under the hay bales, or plentifully squashed along the local lanes. I have hardly seen even a squashed hedgehog now for some years.
According to ‘The state of Britain’s hedgehogs 2011’ hedgehogs declined by more than 25%, perhaps by as much as 40%, over the preceding decade. This was partly calculated from observations of the number of squashed hedgehogs, which were recorded at minus 22% between 2001 and 2009. I would have recorded minus 99%. However :
‘Reasons for hedgehog declines are still not known for certain but hypotheses include the continuing intensification of agriculture (for example reductions in permanent pasture, loss of hedgerows and field margins), the fragmentation of habitat in urban areas, and predation by badgers.’
Badgers. They are now to be found, more or less squashed – mostly battered and bloating – alongside roads throughout the country. That is, they have clearly increased in numbers significantly. It has been estimated that there was a 77% increase in the British badger population between 1988 and 1997. The badger population in Great Britain in 2012 was estimated at 30,000. And badgers don’t just eat hedgehogs. They also eat ground nesting birds, such as one finds on farmland.
Michael Hart, a farmer friend writing from the West Country, tells the following story :
‘On my own farm and three others in the early 1990’s we had a bovine TB breakdown in our cattle which was traced to badgers . . . and as a result the badgers on the farms with the breakdowns were culled . . . The result over the next few years was a huge increase in ground nesting birds such as sky larks. It was nothing to see up to a dozen birds singing above a field on our farm and we had game birds with young chicks which we had not seen in any numbers since the early 1970’s. Wild ducks sat on eggs and hatched them in the thick undergrowth around part of our pond. Again we had not seen that since the 1970’s. While we do not have other ground nesters like plovers here I know that in other areas badgers have played a big part in their decline.
Since the badgers were culled others have moved in and we now have three times the number of badgers compared with the pre-cull numbers and now we have no skylarks, no game bird chicks and no wild ducks able to sit and hatch a nest of eggs without it being destroyed and the eggs eaten. Badger numbers were controlled pre early 1970’s by farmers and game keepers. Then in the early 70’s the badger protection act came in and their numbers have multiplied hugely. I had one sett in the 1970’s between my farm and a neighbouring farm. We now have eight setts between us’.
The Bovine TB issue is another story – one which seems to have gone on for far too long – but Michael also has other interesting things to say about farm bird numbers :
‘The other influence on bird numbers is carrion crows, magpies, jays, squirrels and raptors – all of whom have increased hugely in numbers since the 1970’s and all of whom prey on small birds and their nests as egg or chick eaters. Here on my own farm we have had a policy over the last seven years of very much controlling magpies, carrion crows and squirrels which are not protected . . . we are unable to control raptors as they are protected. We have seen a big increase in farmland bird numbers, other than ground nesting birds as we cannot control badger numbers. We have also replaced the feed that sparrows got from grain stores by feeding them grain in feeders around the yard which led to a huge increase in their numbers. But that has now been greatly reduced in spite of the feeding by sparrow hawks, who seem to have increased in numbers, so that this spring we have only about five pairs [of sparrows] compared with the forty or so pairs we had two years ago. But we can do nothing about this as sparrow hawks are protected.’
Michael’s conclusion is to say :
‘So while I am willing to except that farming practices have had an effect on farmland bird numbers here in the UK, that is not the only reason for the decline, as the RSPB-led work on badgers as predators has shown they are a leading predator of skylarks in cereal crops.
So before we all bash farmers again I ask that other questions are asked as to what else might be causing the decline in farmland birds’.
Things change, both positively and negatively. I have now lived long enough to notice that animal and bird populations are not static, but ebb and flow with the years. The question is, though, how do these changes compare with times past ? Are these gains and losses just the natural order of things, or are we living in unnatural times ? Of course Britain has not been natural for many centuries. The entire landscape has been transformed by the activities of humankind, by agricultural practices in particular. Still, it is clear that the nature and scale of human activity in the last few decades has forced the pace of changes in nature – and that things are set to change yet faster. The development of agrochemical and intensive agricultural practices since the Second World War has probably been the main factor in my lifetime. However, in my estimation, the changes this has caused are likely to be as nothing compared to what is to come as a result of impending climate change.
Michael Hart, Small and Family Farms Alliance, e-mail to the UK Food Group, 08.06.12