Virtually nothing

It isn't news. It should really come as no surprise to any of us.

Our wild bird population is in free-fall, cartwheeling downwards to some horrible, unimaginable base figure. 

For years we have been talking about the demise of such species as Turtle Doves and Spotted Flycatchers, but these migrant losses have been explained away as not really being of the UK making - it is the expansion of the Sahel desert you see, or the southern-Mediterranean hunters blasting them out of the sky. Our Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers are suffering at the hands (wings?) of nest site competition from Ring-necked Parakeets, not our fault but that of a foreign interloper. Our Willow Tits are being removed from southern England because of the drying out of habitat, a world-wide symptom of climate changing, so not our fault really. And now, any collapse of any bird population in the UK will be down to the bird-flu pandemic, handily attributed to unhygienic poultry-farming in some far-off country. The reasons given above are, of course, far more complicated than that, but I have read such offerings as to why certain species are not doing well.

And, of course, when we go out counting birds, no one year replicates another. Locally to me I can come across four-figure finch flocks during the winter, but not in every year, and not in the same place, so their absence is not quantifiable as anything other than 'not in this particular winter or place, maybe a return to such numbers next year'. But as each year passes by, the birds have, generally, decreased in number. That flock of 1000 Linnets that regularly fed on the local farm fields ten years ago, that could still muster counts of 200-300 five years ago, that just about scraped above 100 three years ago, have now settled down to 25. We settle on the new number, take it as some kind of normal - Shifting Baseline Syndrome in action. 

But each winter yielded something that distracted us - a Hawfinch irruption; a large Brambling roost; an unexpected hedge full of Yellowhammers. Ah, all is well, there are birds after all, maybe we are not looking in the right places? But think about it. These isolated incidents/happenings are just that - isolated. I have walked from a flock of 1,000 Bramblings to a gathering of 50 Yellowhammers, a distance of six miles, across downland and farmland and seen virtually nothing in-between, certainly no small passerine flocks. The best might have been counting corvids or pigeons on the fields. And even they seem to be tailing off...

This same 'islandisation' of good birdwatching sites is hiding in plain site. Birders travel from reserve to reserve and don't stop to look anywhere else in-between because, outside of the carefully tended habitats, nothing (or little) survives. We are becoming - no, have become - a wildlife diminished, impoverished island. Land grubbed up and dosed with chemical. Planted with non-native trees. Waterways polluted with no penalty or punishment. Deer allowed to increase and damage. Vast acres of land given over to released game birds. White elephants such as HS2 driven through ancient woodlands so that a man in a suit can save himself twenty minutes on a train journey from London to Birmingham.

My local farm is a good example of what has happened. Back in the 1970s it was mixed farmland, with livestock. The cattle were removed. Crops took over, so several hedgerows were removed. Then a few more. The planting and harvesting timings, that had survived for centuries unchanged, were changed. This reduced (or sometimes totally removed) winter feeding sites and eliminated areas of safe nesting. Margins were squeezed (both monetary and soil) - planting went right up to the surviving hedges. More advanced chemicals eradicated the wild flowers that grew within the crops and also leached into the hedgerow. No flowers meant no seed. No seed meant no birds. Birds that were not likely to be there anyway as they had nowhere to nest. And each year - drip, drip, drip - numbers fell.

Yesterday I went on a 24km walk from home, a loop that took in downland, wood, farm and heath. Most of the farmland was monotonous grassland, winter wheat and a little brassica. Game cover and set-aside virtually absent. It was a calm, sunny day. Ideal for observing birds. These are my TOTALS of selected species for this nine-hour walk - 3 Kestrel, 40 Skylark, 70 Blackbird, 30 Redwing, 100 Fieldfare, 1 Bullfinch, 2 Greenfinch, 20 Chaffinch, 16 Linnet, 25 House Sparrow, 1 Yellowhammer. Dire. Depressing. Soul-destroying.

There is some good work being done on some farm and downland sites with sympathetic land management and supplementary feeding. Here there are still flocks of finches, buntings and larks in the hundreds, even thousands. But they are few and far between. And if you were to make that very long journey on foot between them you would see... virtually nothing.


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