Birds In the Garden

I’m a terrible birder. I recently went out to buy boxes for the House Martins I saw around us, only to discover they were Swallows. If I’m being honest, I’m generally less obsessed by birds than by the stuff  they eat.

By that I don’t mean I have a weird fetish for bird food.

The bird population is a really good indicator of whether we’re doing the right things in our gardens. By creating and sympathetically managing (attractive and) varied habitats we can really make a difference to the volume and variety of seed and tasty morsels available for them.

And the birds hereabouts need a bit of help. Staying with friends in the South Downs National Park in Sussex last weekend we noticed how loud and varied the birdsong was compared with the surrounding countryside here.

Garden birds
Blimey – it’s a long way down!

Most of our boxes here are full though (including one which might have been taken over by dormice, excitingly). At this time of year there’s an excited yabbering coming from them all round the meadow.  Parent tits dash about frantically, carrying big juicy caterpillars. There’s a family of Swallows-not-House-Martins nesting under the eves next to the kitchen too. You get the picture. We have had an unremarkable roll call of bird species, though, but – interestingly – this is now changing.

Garden BirdsAlthough I was working hard in the office this morning (!), a pair of drab looking small birds caught my attention. Sitting on some garden furniture, they were sallying up to roof level to catch insects, then dropping back to their perches. My nice super switched on birding friend Fiona says Spotted Flycatchers.  I’ve heard them in our little forest garden, now I listen to the video on the RSPB site. They’re increasingly rare in the UK and Red Listed.

I guess they’re here because the habitat is right for them. Good nesting sites and lots of tasty big insects. Happy day.

House Sparrows

For fellow baby boomers, the demise of house sparrows is an obvious and distressing sign of the crisis in nature around us. In a week when we celebrated World Sparrow Day, it was sad to also see a stunning survey from France, showing a collapse in bird numbers generally there.

House Sparrow
It’s cold out there…

Why have house sparrows, a ubiquitous and cheery part of my childhood, run into such hard times that they are now a “species of conservation concern” in the UK? Aspects of their story are entirely typical of many other species in trouble here.

The first common characteristic is that people don’t really know the answer. It’s difficult to research even house sparrows – a pretty charismatic and high profile species. There’s probably a combination of factors at work, so far as I can gather.

Maybe there are fewer nest sites. Availability of food seems to be a problem. It could be that pollution impacts on them, although numbers in town seem to be declining at the same rate as their country cousins. Maybe it’s rising numbers of predators. Disease might also be a factor.

I’ve heard the same answers as to why almost anything is disappearing- bees, bats, butterflies, hedgehogs, crickets…

There is rarely a smoking gun, that’s the point. The environment is much more complicated, to the irritation of many campaign groups. Even if you have a relatively clear cut case – like albatrosses and long line fishing – you won’t save them from extinction purely by banning it. There’s much more going wrong.

It’s impossible to weigh different factors or to isolate them, even if you had the funding to try to. In an area I know more about – honeybees – it’s tempting to point the finger exclusively at the ghastly neonicotinoids. However, honeybees are struggling for a variety of reasons, neonics among them. In no particular order and in combination there’s weather, climate change, varroa, habitat loss, monocultures, fungicide use, pesticide use…

Again typically, elements in the house sparrow story suggest we’re missing a key piece of interpretation. Numbers in the south east seem to be under more pressure than in the south west – why’s that?

As usual, when we don’t know, odder – and unproven – theories take hold. Apparently mobile phones – once held to be decimating honey bee populations – are now also potential culprits for falling sparrow numbers. Sigh.

So what can we do? What we can. Better and more plants, more seeds and bugs in our gardens. Nestboxes, nice thick hedges. Clean feeders. No pesticides. Cross our fingers.

Lodge Hill

I’ve often commented on how terrible our political class is at dealing with environmental issues. That’s not a party political point but a general one. A recent poll put Labour and Conservatives at the same level of perceived competence on the environment, which is probably about right. They’re both useless. The recent Environmental Audit Committee report agrees; Here’s the scoreboard this cross party committee awarded the current government. It said:

In our scorecard we have assessed biodiversity, air pollution and flooding as ‘red’ risks, and thus areas of particular concern. In none of the 10 environmental areas we have examined is satisfactory progress being made

This is Owen Paterson’s legacy. Well done.

What’s annoying is that the electorate don’t seem to care. If the Tories got a kicking from voters on this sort of thing they would respond to it, I’m sure. Ed Miliband might even remember to mention it.

Oddly, perhaps the Reckless affair might put the environment centre stage. Mark Reckless, recently defected Conservative MP for Medway, has consistently opposed a massive development in his constituency which has also become a cause celebre in the conservation world. Lodge Hill is a Site of Special Scientific Interest on which a developer wants to build a small town of 5,000 houses. Amazingly the local council have approved the application:

This effectively means that nowhere is safe from housing development.

Call me naive, but there might just be a chance that Mark Reckless’s opposition isn’t just nimbyism, political opportunism or entirely predicated on the idea that we don’t need as many homes as the government says because we don’t need as many people.

The environment might be starting to become a more central feature of the political landscape. It would be peculiar if it was UKIP that put it there. Funny old world.

Footnote: As time goes on it seems like I was just naive. UKIP’s environment policy, such as it, seems completely bonkers and Mr Reckless just appears to be an opportunist.

Martha the Passenger Pigeon

Martha the Passenger PigeonThis is Martha, the world’s last Passenger Pigeon. She died on 1st September 1914. The last wild one was seen by a boy in Ohio in 1900, who shot it. Passenger Pigeons weren’t Dodos or Pandas; 200 years ago they were probably the most prolific bird on the planet.

Flocks of millions of birds darkened the skies of the U.S., where some nesting sites were estimated to have up to 150 million birds each, spread over hundreds of square miles. In 1813 Audubon was under a flock, travelling at 60 mph, which took 3 days to fly over him. At around the same time Alexander Wilson saw a flock he estimated at over 2 BILLION birds. Why did they suddenly disappear? They were shot in huge numbers for food and their traditional roosts, in vast hardwood forests, were decimated by logging and land clearance. Sound familiar?

The extinction of the Passenger Pigeon is shocking. In a complicated world it is one of the most unambiguous instances of the potential of man to do irreversible damage to the planet. Let’s not forget the power we have.


I’m not a great bird expert, but I’ve been thrilled by the avian developments at Hookgate Cottage over the last few weeks. SwallowsWe’ve had swallows and wagtails nesting in the carport, and this week their offspring have fledged.

Great excitement.

We’ve had a great affinity with both sets of parents; the wagtails moved in to the new house before we did, and there were swallows in the old stables we knocked down. It’s really lovely to see them back, and I’m chuffed both sets of young ones seem to be doing so well. There are 5 young swallows, and I’m not sure how many wagtails wedged down the back of one of my wood piles.

Wagtail and bumblebee
Oi! Give us our bee back!

They seem like “our” birds, which is one of the lovely things about gardening with an eye on the local wildlife. I love the godlike sense of running our own little ecosystem, and seeing animals towards the top of the food chain flourishing is a clear indication that we’re doing something right. The insect population at Hookgate is doing very well. We’re managing our hedges and field to encourage diversity, and have a wide range of wildflowers out there as well as the roof. The pond’s not properly sorted yet, but holds enough water to be helpful – not least for swallow nest building operations! We’ve seen our first bats and Chasers too, which is exciting.

Swallow on wire
Very elegant…


Swallow at Hookgate

Cats Kill Animals

The cats kill animals debate erupted again last week. There was a study published in the journal Nature which suggested that cats were killing a lot more animals in the US than we had thought:

We estimate that free-ranging domestic cats kill 1.4–3.7 billion birds and 6.9–20.7 billion mammals annually. Un-owned cats, as opposed to owned pets, cause the majority of this mortality. Our findings suggest that free-ranging cats cause substantially greater wildlife mortality than previously thought and are likely the single greatest source of anthropogenic mortality for US birds and mammals. Scientifically sound conservation and policy intervention is needed to reduce this impact.

Cats Kill AnimalsThis is one of those stories we really knew about but ignored, like there being all sorts of stuff we’d rather not think about in cheap burgers. The fact that cats are keen to kill animals is an unfortunate characteristic of an otherwise lovely animal.
Most wildlife charites are desperately keen not to alienate cat lovers. The RSPB finds gamekeepers a much easier target, despite a top estimate of 100 million songbirds lost to cat predation in the UK (Source: Songbird Survival)*. I think the RSPB says on its website that it’s not keen on cats (although it’s difficult to tell), but that only an estimated 20% of the animals they kill are birds. So that’s all right then. They’re more anxious about habitat loss affecting bird populations, which is less contentious, of course.
As usual, there are no reliable numbers. The RSPB estimates there are 8 million cats in the UK, plus an unknown number of feral cats. A local friend lost her cat so set up a trap to recapture it (ok – a bit weird, but go with the story). She caught a different (feral) cat every night for two weeks. Like when I realized the population densities of Grey Squirrels, I was stunned.
Chris Packham wrote a sensible blog about cats last year, recommending 3 easy steps to reduce cat predation:

1. Keeping cats indoors at night cuts predation in half.
2. Fitting a new style beeper collar also cuts bird predation by 45-50%.
3. Get our cats neutered. A neutered cat is less likely to roam (and, of course, multiply! – Ed).

Most of the cat owning folk I know do at least one of he above, but I wonder if we shouldn’t be doing something more obvious. How about tackling the feral cat problem, where the finger of blame is increasingly pointing? Would we tolerate wild dogs wandering about, particularly in the numbers cats seem to be? Come on, RSPB; let’s have some research and, if necessary, some action.

*this seems excessive – the median estimate seems to be around 55 million. Still a big number.

Relating to Raptors

Don't worry...
We toddled off to Sussex on Saturday to celebrate father-in-law’s 80th. As is ever the way when our lot get together we had a very jolly time, and we had some great entertainment laid on too. A magician at lunch (where did that melon come from?!) and, before pre-prandial drinks, a lady with raptors. What was lovely about this was not so much the birds themselves, who were beautiful and engagingly idiosyncratic, but the way the children in particular engaged with them. happy
If you’re small and an owl swoops down onto your arm it can be a bit scary, particularly if you’ve had no contact with birds of that size before. Ferocious talons and a fierce looking beak makes an owl look less like Hedwig and more like a proper predator. The children loved the whole experience though, as raptor lady said they would. Why am I surprised? Every time children engage with nature they love it, and you see their preconceptions drop away within minutes if they’re told the story as it is. You can’t get much more red in tooth and claw than these chaps, but by the end of our session all the cousins wanted their own raptor to take home with them. Education, education, education. Simples.

The New Barn Owl Box

The Surprise
We had barn owls in a box we put up at our last house, but they disappeared during a very wet spell – one of their problems is that they can’t fly in the rain. While they were using the box they bred twice, and mum and dad and their rackety chicks gave me enormous pleasure. I found a dead adult in the hedgeline around the time they went, which was heart-breaking. Conservationists talk about iconic species; anyone who has seen a barn owl hunting at dusk would call them iconic.
Our new place is just about perfect for them. We’re in pretty open countryside with hedges, tussocky grass and voles coming out of our ears (metaphorically!), plus an oak tree which isn’t just perfect for a box but which we’ll also be able to see at close range from the new kitchen window. We sell boxes ourselves, so I was confident about what I was getting when an exciting looking parcel arrived in the post. They’re made by a team of local raptor enthusiasts, so they’re well designed and come with easy to follow instructions. They’re nice and light and easy to put up – even for a doofus like me. I’m no expert, but I’m told apparently barn owls like boxes and, if they’re around, the chances of them using a properly sited one are high. Fingers crossed.

Settling In

Now we’ve – nearly – resolved the usual moving in nonsenses with idiosyncratic plumbing and the idiotic BT Broadband we can almost peer through the mountain of empty packing cases and paper and see our new HQ in the light of day.

There’s so much to take in with a new plot it’s difficult to know where to start. We have just under an acre and a half of land sloping west to east, where a lane borders the hedge. We’re surrounded by fields in the other directions, with a hedge to the south close to the existing cottage, which sits in the south east corner of the plot. I am looking out west from my office towards some stables, an unlovely powerline and a lovely oak in the hedgeline. The views are generally stunning though (see below), and it’s part of the challenge for the architects in designing the new build to take advantage of them while folding the house into the existing landscape.

The land itself is a blank canvas. There’s not much of a formal garden and the rest of the land is either thistle and bindweed – already strimmed – in the southwest corner and some potentially nice grassland in the northern two thirds of the plot. I say “potentially” because the grasses are nice and the sward is open, but there are very few flowers out there. Apart from the odd milk thistle there is a good area of meadow vetchling, some buttercup and red clover, and a little agrimony and bedstraw. The local farmer has just very kindly topped it for us and will bale and remove the hay, when we’ll sow some Rattle to start to get it under control. Landscaper Phil Brown has lots of ideas for this section, which will be divided up into smaller, quite distinct areas.

As to the local wildlife, the folk who sold us the house were mad keen birders and did a great job attracting an amazing variety into the garden. Unfortunately, 15 bird feeders led to another, less welcome, visiting fraternity. We’re now temporarily in a feeder free zone and waging mechanical and chemical warfare on the impressive local rat population. As to my own great enthusiasms further down the food chain there are a few butterflies about; I’ve seen meadow browns, woods, small tortoiseshells and skippers. I’ve come across no bats and remarkably few bees and hoverflies; I’ve seen Bombus lapidarius and B. hortorum, but hardly any solitary bees. I yearn for all the fauna and flora around our old pond too; the site desperately misses water. It will be fascinating to see how quickly we can bring up insect numbers over the next few years.

There are honey bees about, and, happy day, I’ve managed to collect a late swarm. It will need a lot of TLC to get it through the winter, but fingers crossed. I’ll collect my own colonies after their holiday with my beekeeping friend John.

As far as the house is concerned we’ve had some exciting meetings with the architects – about which, gentle reader, more anon. For the time being here’s a quick video of the views from the back garden.

Seasonal Greetings

As the snow finally starts to thaw in Somerset and Christmas’s Sloe Gin hangover dulls, I stumbled across an interesting and apposite report from the National Trust today, which pointed out that dry summers and cold winters are more good news than bad for our wildlife:

For the first time in a generation we have experienced a traditional year of weather and our wildlife has mostly responded favourably. A cold winter enabled wildlife to hibernate properly while a warm spring and early summer created ideal conditions for insects and led to bumper autumn berry crops in our orchards, woods and hedgerows.

Pool of London, February 1895
As a beekeeper I don’t need to be told how problemmatic warm winters are for them too; if they are active throughout the winter months they use up their winter honey stores early and starve, particularly if we then have a miserable spring. There are, of course, plenty of animals which enjoy mild weather now – but, like the flora that does, many of them are non-native.
Readers of our national organs might be surprised to hear this. There seems to be a simple reflex among news editors; if it snows for a bit run a story about how difficult conditions are for birds. Start with Wrens, and if it stays snowy you can move on to starving Barn Owls. A while later and you can throw in some pictures of other larger animals, like dead frogs under the ice in ponds – which have had an oxygen deficency anyway. Yes, it’s true that some animals will struggle in extreme weather, but it’s not just an over-simplification to point out the victims, it’s downright misleading in terms of the bigger picture. And if it helps delay the spread of jolly non-native species like the Asian Hornet, then so much the better. So I for one am enjoying (certain aspects of!) this reminder of winters past.