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Wednesday, 18 November 2009

My concerns over the British Countryside and its real lack of farmland birds

This is a response I wrote to a fellow birder concerned about the predicament this country finds itself in as regards to its ongoing agricultural and countryside policies.

''I am very sad to say that this is prevalent throughout much of Southern England - vast tracts of our countryside are a totally birdless, barren, foodless landscape. You can drive for miles when the only species you will encounter are Woodpigeon and Carrion Crow. In reality, few farmers are interested in the Stewardship Scheme and many feel particularly aggrieved by this government's approach to Foxhunting. I see little reverse in fortunes of our traditional farmland species here in rural Buckinghamshire such as Corn Bunting, Tree Sparrow, Spotted Flycatcher, Grey Partridge and European Turtle Dove and now, even species like Yellowhammer and Reed Bunting are becoming scarce. Eurasian Skylark is doing reasonably well because it is utilising land re-landscaped at landfill sites.

The hunting ban seriously troubles me because that is where we are seeing populations of both farmland and woodland birds still holding up. The large tracts of farmland devoted to such syndicate activities involves planting maize strips for the Common Pheasants and other gamebirds to shelter and feed and also protects substantial areas of coppiced woods and plantations; these in turn harbour a great many bird species and attract a lot of other wildlife. I have spoken with many estate landowners who will turn this land back to agriculture if this ban continues and their traditional way of life is continually undermined. I do not agree with bloodsports but in this case I certainly feel that wildlife has more to gain from this activity than lose and only the odd Red Fox is actually killed anyway on the average hunting day, primarily the lame and the sick (more are killed on the M25 and M40 every day).

I was trawling through my notebook of 1971 and my eyes watered at the entries. There were four pairs of Red-backed Shrike breeding within 25 miles of my house including a pair that raised all of its five young. Tree Sparrow was so abundant and breeding in every Ash tree that it barely warranted a mention; likewise the abundance of Yellowhammer. Hawfinches were common and I had big roosts to count. The sound of machine-gunning Lesser Redpoll were everywhere as was the habitat they required to breed - open rich countryside full of the beautiful scent of wild flowers. The jangling song of the Corn Bunting was a daily occurrence and the many roosts harboured 300 birds or more, with Yellow Wagtail equally numerous. I noted Spotted Flycatcher at over 35 sites - all breeding within five miles of my house - and the sound of singing Willow Warblers could be heard literally everywhere. I found Common Nightingale at 15 sites in early May (where now there are none and the thickets have largely fallen silent), Barn Swallows breeding at every farm, House Martins by the dozen under the eaves of many houses, especially those newly built and Common Stonechat, Whinchat and Northern Wheatear all bred in small numbers. The sound of Long-eared Owls could be heard from the conifer woods in March and April and numerous pairs of European Nightjar were on the heaths, particularly at Old Warden. The sound of the Common Cuckoo could be heard everywhere in late April/early May and the dearly-loved European Turtle Dove saw daily entries with flocks of up to 160 birds being commonplace (and westerly migration at Cley East Bank in North Norfolk staggering). In fact, relating to the latter and sitting with the late Richard Richardson, I logged an unbelievable 23,000 Linnets migrating west in late April.

One of my favourite local patches - Ashridge Forest - held 32 or more singing male Tree Pipits, 12 Wood Warblers, several Common Redstarts, breeding Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers and roding Woodcocks - whilst Willow Tits were easy to locate and their nasal calls could be heard in many local woods. Reedbed roosts of Common Starlings numbered into the 'millions' whereas my few today struggle to reach 2,000.

Yes Mike you can say that I am as depressed about the state of our Nation's wildlife as you are and cherish the memories that I have in golden days gone by. On my travels around the Western Palearctic, only Sardinia, Eastern Turkey, Spain, Eastern Poland and Armenia continue to harbour natural countryside in a way in which we remember and consequently are rich in biodiversity.

I really do not know the answers - it makes me too depressed to even think about it''

Love Lives Forever - Heal The World

Lee G R EvansBritish Birding AssociationUK400 Club, Rare Birds Magazine, Ornithological Consultant and Conservationist