100 years ago on a Surrey farm

I wrote the following for an item in the 2011 Canons Farm Bird Report. In lieu of a current post today, here it is. 
The birds of Canons Farm 100 years ago – an educated guess
There is an affliction that affects many birdwatchers that fall under the spell of covering a local patch. It is to wonder about what species used to be present on site. They like to hypothesise as to the composition of the birdlife from bygone ages and dream of what may have bred there, those birds that used the site as passage migrants and even delve into the realms of pure fantasy and speculate on the rarities that remained undiscovered.
Without the ability to time travel, we have to consult the printed archives to get a realistic feel for these long gone days. The ornithological record of Canons Farm is relatively recent, but sightings from the neighbouring areas have been gathered from as early as the late 19thcentury. These late Victorian ornithologists were few in number, had limited reference and spent most of their time studying the breeding cycle of birdlife. Therefore the database, compared to today’s, is thin. However, enough data exists for the ornithological detective of the 21stcentury to build a picture of what went before. 
A map exists of the farmland south of Banstead that dates from 1871. To the modern observer, it looks strikingly familiar. Place names have little changed. Farmhouses are to be found exactly where the present dwellings are sited. Woodland boundaries appear to have remained static. The first impression of the field boundaries is that little has changed too, although a closer look reveals that Broad Field was broken up into six units and the large field opposite Reeds Rest Cottages into four. We can therefore picture a farmland with more hedgerows, which would have been more luxuriant than those found today due to the lack of pesticides used on any crops grown between them. The modern vogue for spraying up to (and even into) the hedgerow does little to encourage vegetation growth. More positives for the birdlife would have been apparent because of the gentler farming practices – the crops would have been sharing the soil with many more wildflowers. Apart from the seeds that these would have produced for food, the accompanying insect population, enticed by the nectar, would have been boosted – even more food for birds. Compared to today’s empty larder, the 1911 birdlife would have enjoyed a banquet.  The thicker vegetation would have also acted as more desirable breeding habitat. The overall result would have been more birds present on site. Harvesting regimes, with the timing of bringing the crops in, might have been more sympathetic to the success of breeding birds that were utilising the growth to nest in, plus allowing the seed to be accessible for longer. There are poorer soils present on Canons Farm that used to hold livestock, giving the farmland some grassy areas to add diversity to the habitat.
Beyond the farm it was still largely open down land, stretching from Sutton in the north, from Epsom Downs in the west, and from Reigate in the south. Small farms were sprinkled across this majestic sweep of countryside. Only the woodland to the east would have broken up this open vista.
So, with this information what can we suppose the ornithologist visiting Canons Farm during 1911 would have found? I have set out the following account roughly in a systematic order. It is open to debate, but I feel confident that if we did possess a time travelling machine we would find it fairly close to what was present a hundred years ago.
Grey Partridges would have been a familiar sight to our Edwardian birdwatcher. A big increase in the population was experienced in the late 19thcentury due to changes in farming practice and active game keeping. This latter discipline would, however, have had the opposite effect on raptors and crows in particular. Magpies would have been an infrequent observation. Birds of prey would have also been thin on the ground.
The Corncrake is often used as a symbol of lost birdlife due to modern farming practice. Mechanical harvesting became common place in the late 19thcentury and this was literally the death of hundreds of these skulking land rails. Corncrakes were still breeding in the wider area at the turn of the 20thcentury and still bred on Epsom Downs up until 1934. Even if Canons Farm itself was not blessed with the rasping call of this species during the high summer months, it is not too fanciful to suggest that passage migrants, particularly in the autumn, would have lurked in the fields.
Stone Curlews were still a feature of the nearby North Downs around this period of time. The open fields must have proved irresistible to the odd passage migrant.
Gulls have become an inland success story in modern Britain, utilising the reservoirs and modern flat roofed buildings of the cities to become year-round inhabitants. It was not always so. Our 1911 birdwatcher would not have seen gulls in anywhere near the numbers that we do now, and certainly not seen many at all between April and July.
They would have taken Turtle Doves for granted however. The soporific purring would have been common. Autumn would have seen large flocks in the hedgerows, the observer scattering birds as they walked the field boundaries. Hunting nearby would have been Barn Owls, avidly gathering prey for their hungry young back in the barns. A century on and we are hoping that this will be repeated!
Although the Wryneck had already started a national decline, breeding birds were still regularly found in Banstead, a pair remaining in Chipstead up until 1960. Breeding would have been likely in the environs of the farm, with passage migrants and wandering young almost certain. The same would have been true for Red-backed Shrike. The hedgerows and scrub of the southern slopes would not have been complete without this butcher bird a part of the summer scene. Spotted Flycatchers, whilst not at plague proportions, would have been commonly seen zipping in and out of the tree canopy assaulting passing insects. A number of breeding pairs were most probably scattered across the area.
Willow Tits were still extant. Banstead Woods and Burgh Heath were historical stations for this newly discovered species, only understood to be separate from the Marsh Tit shortly before 1911.
A winter’s stroll would have been enlivened by Hooded Crow, still seen in enough numbers to sometimes be encountered in flocks. Nearby would have been noisy flocks of Tree Sparrows, mixed in with the winter finches feeding on the stubble. They would have also been breeding in the area, although this species has always been known to have a population that is cyclical in abundance. 
Corn Buntings were a low-level resident across the wider local area. The jangling song would have been proclaimed widely over the farm, with flocks being found outside of the breeding season. But a rarer bird was also present. In 1900 it was still breeding in Banstead and hung on in the Tadworth and Sutton areas until 1930. I refer to the Cirl Bunting. What a welcome addition that would be to the 21stcentury Canons Farm fauna.
So, the birdwatcher that wandered the farmland a hundred years ago had much to look at. There were certainly a larger number of birds to watch. He didn’t have any Ring-necked Parakeets to disturb the peace and Collared Doves were still forty years away from colonising this country.
If the CFBW group is still in existence in a 100 years time, then what would they make of the state of our birdlife now? Will they be gasping at the fact that we currently have Skylarks and Yellowhammers? Such is the fascination of bird watching. No year is ever the same, never mind each century.


Stewart said…
Nice post Steve, though provoking. I remember HG Alexander saying that there were no gulls inland when he was a lad, none at all!
Steve Gale said…
Thanks Stewart. Any area anywhere in the UK could tell a similar tale

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