A Nightingale Sang...
We visited old friends in Sussex this weekend. They live in what must be one of the most biodiverse areas of southeastern England, bordering the South Downs National Park. Every time we visit I'm bowled over by the volume and complexity of the dawn chorus there. I'm hopeless at identifying birdsong, but even I can hear how many birds there are. And how lovely to hear a cuckoo again!
It's an interesting contrast with our home patch in Somerset.
We've worked really hard to improve the birdlife in our garden and we're doing pretty well, but the area around us really isn't great.
There are some significant differences between the two landscapes which might not be immediately apparent, but which are responsible for what makes the difference.
To start with, we're surrounded by dairy farms. Their fields look green and tranquil, but these struggling farmers are fighting an unequal battle against retailers and the consumer. It's one which they've been losing. One of the symptoms of it has been their forced reliance on grass leys - that is, temporary quick growing grass with high sugar content. It gives high milk yields and lots of grass for repeated silage cuts. After a few years it's all sprayed off and resown.
End result, no wildflowers. We live in the middle of a green desert. Contrast this with the floral diversity of sympathetically managed permanent grassland on the thin soils of the South Downs.
We have fewer hedges here now, and we certainly have much keener hedge flailers. Regular readers of this blog will know this is a particular bugbear. Can any farmer explain to me why it's necessary to flail hedges every year to something that's around a metre tall?
The hedges around our friends in Sussex are much more like what Natural England recommends. Not so unmanaged that they grow out, but impenetrable thick barriers up to 4m tall, cut every three years or so in rotation.
We have a reasonable amount of woodland here, some of it ancient, and pride ourselves in our local tradition of wood pasture. Like most woodland in the UK, however, our woods aren't properly managed. We have a lot of non-native conifers and a lot of deer. So we have no understory, and no succession of woodland plants.
There's a long history of silvaculture in Sussex, and the best woodland there is regularly coppiced and protected from being grazed off. End result, much higher biodiversity.
...is the key for all these landscape features. Meadows need cutting and/or grazing at the right times of year. Hedges need sympathetic trimming and/ or laying. Woodlands need to be kept open and diverse, with helathy understory. Unsurprisingly to my mind, woodland invertebrate species are struggling at the moment as so many of our woods are in such a bad state.
This is counter-intuitive for a certain kind of "rewilder", incidentally, and deeply unfashionable in some circles.
We were lured over to visit our friends partly by the offer of an evening listening to nightingales. Given what I've already described, it might be no great surprise to learn that this area has a much reduced but nationally significant population of them.
What magical birds. Eric Maschwitz and John Keats weren't wrong; there's something very special about them. They're so fragile, no just physically, but, like a lot of our wildlife, in terms of their life cycle. Their long migration and short and precarious lives add a particular pathos to the cadences of the males' insistent, complicated and beautiful nocturnal song.
We headed round the corner from our friends to meet Sam Lee of the Nest Collective for a night, to find out more. Sam knows his stuff, and is a natural story teller - I'd thoroughly recommend the experience. The woodland where he's based is managed in a traditional way, with natural regeneration, coppicing, and no deer. There's a rich mosaic of habitats here; paths connect open glades through dense thickets. The woodland floor is clothed in wood anemone, wood sorrel, wild garlic, bluebell. Wood spurge and foxglove thrive in recently coppiced areas. There's a rich ecosystem here and, of course, it's bursting with birdsong.
Nightingales are very rare in the UK now. Sam mentioned a figure of something over five thousand birds here. There was something sad about our little group of pilgrims, travelled from all over the country, solemnly walking in reverential silence to hear a bird which is likely to disappear from our landscape in the not too distant future. It felt a bit weirdly voyeuristic, and seemed to speak a lot about our awkward relationship with nature at the moment.
But when we found a bird to listen to, how fantastic! Competing with planes landing at Gatwick, it was nonetheless a magical moment. Perhaps more so because of the man made interference; this tiny unseen bird seemed so vulnerable and its song so hopeless and forlorn.
We Can Do This
Back at our friends' much later that night - or rather, early the following morning - I popped outside for a pee. It was dark (darker than it would have been here), still and silent, except for the voice of a single nightingale in their garden. This year several have arrived around them, in part at least because of what they've been doing with their land to help them. It was a great message of hope; despite all the dangers and difficulties these amazing birds face, we can help them ourselves by taking well-informed practical action.
I left Sussex with everything crossed that a local project we're involved with here in Somerset to create nightingale habitat was going to be successful too. I'm super excited about it. We'll keep you posted!