Saturday, 2 December 2017

Missing in action

The past two days have seen visits to Canons Farm and Priest Hill. Although neither habitats are 'birdy' by nature - they lack water for a start - the small number of birds seen at both sites was concerning. As seems to be the way of 21st century birding, the commonest species recorded were Woodpigeon, Carrion Crow and Herring Gull, but even these were in depressed numbers. The 'missing in action' list was long, with a lack of tits, finches and thrushes most alarming - there were representatives present from each family, but in worryingly low numbers. Where are they? Not here, that's for sure.

Away from the birding hot-spots our bird numbers are in free fall. Whereas sorting through and counting large finch flocks used to be a 'given', my pulse now quickens if I come across one, such is their perceived rarity. Any larks and pipits huddle together in modest clumps, not strewn across the hinterland so that you kick them up with every few steps. A walk along a hedgerow no longer pushes tens of thrushes ahead - that joyous sight when Blackbirds, Redwings, Song Thrushes and Fieldfares leave their hiding places in a rush of avian expletives - instead there might be an encounter with a small gathering in a field, or a handful on top of a tree. Hardly the same.

The birders reliance on cold weather at this time of year to get things moving used to be so that we could top up on geese, ducks and gorge on large numbers of Lapwings and thrushes. Now it is in the hope that we might just see birds in the same numbers that mild winters used to bring twenty years ago. I truly fear for the future.

I'm glad that I keep my notebooks and the old bird reports so that I can go back and relive the comparatively bird-filled 1970s and 1980s. I have one childish wish - to be able to travel back to a time when our farming methods were sympathetic to wildlife and we were not pollutants of our environment - say the pre-Industrial Revolution era. What bird numbers would I find? We will never know, because birds were not counted then, and very few people identified them beyond their use as food. My guess is that I would be stunned by just how many there would be and the number of species involved. But if I had been able to witness that, just how difficult would it be to return, and bird, in 2017? Very difficult indeed.

13 comments:

Mick Lacey said...

Its the same in Derbyshire Steve. As well as going back in time how about having a pint with the birders of a previous generation, Nethersole-Thompson /Walpole-Bond and Derek Ratcliffe would be my wish list I think.

DorsetDipper said...

Very much dependent on farming I think. Lots of birds in the village and on my patch where the farmer has given up any meaningful sort of farming and allowed it to go wild.

Steve Gale said...

Jock Walpole-Bond. He was one character Mick. Used to take on travellers in boxing rings at fairgrounds for light entertainment - he really did!

Steve Gale said...

Priest Hill is long-abandoned farmland that has reverted to grassland. No chemicals, plenty of wild flowers but very few birds. Canons Farm though, sprayed into avian oblivion...

Gavin Haig said...

I recall a birding pal recounting his experience of a fairly recent trip to somewhere not that far away (Bulgaria maybe?) and how he was blown away by the sheer abundance of common species. Farming practices there were apparently much kinder to the environment. He did comment that it was what he imagined our own countryside must have been like many years ago.

My own experience locally is, by and large, farmland = desert.

Steve Gale said...

Gav, the birders who return from Eastern Europe are often full of such observations, but apparently farming practices are starting to modernise there as well. Soon there will be nowhere left for the birds...

Derek Faulkner said...

Clearly the difference in farming methods would be the biggest difference between the last two centuries but another factor would be the difference in habitat acreage. Back then, no massive housing estates, no motorways, etc. Wildlife is forever being squeezed in to ever smaller areas, that's why a lot of our once common birds here in the south are still relatively common further north and in Scotland where there are still decent acreages of open land.

Steve Gale said...

Derek, there is also some evidence for a northern shift in the distribution of some of our summer migrants, caused by - you've guessed it - human activity.

Dylan Wrathall said...

Strangely, not one mention of supermarkets? Farming has gone down this route, within the UK, purely to satisfy a demand for cheap food - that's from the entire population! Supermarket chains are massive players in this game and farmers are forced to be ever more efficient in their methods in order to remain in business. Mono-culture is a very obvious way to increase yields, as is the quick turn round between crops, thus the use of herbicides and ever increasing amounts of chemical fertilizers. There is no simple solution, all the time our population continues to grow - blaming farmers is an easy cop out! Start by looking at the food you buy and how it was produced? Happy to pay three times as much for the same stuff, produced organically? No, neither am I, and there's the problem in a nut shell!
Our countryside is the result of consumer demand and the politic of greed - I, too, fear for the future and the chances of my grandchildren enjoying the wildlife that I have taken for granted during my time growing up in our "Green & Pleasant" land. Cheerful sods - soon be Christmas - Dyl

Steve Gale said...

All true Dyl. There are (partial) solutions available but most people would sooner have cheaper food than look at a Yellowhammer.

Phil Slade said...

I recommend a read of Silent Fields by Roger Lovegrove, a historical account of the decline of Britain’s wildlife (2007). The accounts gives an idea of the number of “vermin” animals and birds eliminated from as early as the 16th century but also a fair idea of the actual species. The names do not always coincide with current understanding but they do give a feeling that the numbers of some species was quite phenomenal. We may not persecute birds in the same way in 2017 but we have newer techniques to minimise their numbers.

Phil Slade said...

Not entirely sure about that Derek. Here in Lancashire marginal and sometimes green belt is being swallowed up for "developement".

Steve Gale said...

Thanks for the recommendation Phil. Will seek it out.