I’ll never be a twitcher, but the variety of wildlife I get to see about the countryside on shooting and fishing days is a definite bonus.
Before the action begins on a shooting peg, it’s interesting to see just what comes out of each bit of game cover, hedgerow or thicket. Waiting for flight time on a coastal marsh, you never know just what might drop in, and even during quiet spells in a pigeon hide, there’s always something to see that adds to the day’s events.
Most of the birds I encounter are of the ‘common or garden’ variety, but sadly, some are rapidly becoming candidates for the rarities list. Birdlife is particularly active and interesting in the run-up to the breeding season. During late winter and early spring, I spend the twilight hours out and about, waiting for vermin as dawn breaks, or picking off a pigeon or two as the day draws to a close.
Most of this time is spent just sitting or standing still, watching, listening and waiting for something to turn up. Even during the quiet spells, I’m seldom short of company. Mixed bunches of finches, tits, buntings, robins and wrens hop about the bare branches, blackbirds and thrushes unearth delicacies amongst the leaf litter, and often a string of long-tailed tits follow me along the hedge, or join the tiny treecreeper, searching craggy tree trunks for minute spiders and bugs.
“So far this year it’s been a lonely vigil, but many of my favourite haunts have a stillness that’s quite depressing. Even the early morning birdsong has been noticeably subdued.”
From what I hear, this situation is becoming widespread. With the breeding season now upon us, besides the game, our native songbirds obviously need all the help they can get – and that means sorting the vermin!
Apart from doing your bit to help wild game and songbirds restore their numbers, controlling pest species can provide sport and interest throughout the spring and summer months.
There’s plenty of opportunity to keep your eye in. An early morning shot or two at members of the corvid tribe, joining in on spring vermin drives, and poking out some of the masses of squirrel dreys will certainly keep you busy. Trying to shoot greys bolting through the treetops is not as easy as it looks, but each one accounted for will mean a nest or two saved.
Though it may look cute and cuddly, the tree-rat destroys many of our woodland birds at the egg and nestling stage. I sometimes creep through the woods and ‘squeak’ them out, as curiosity will often get the better of caution.
While a Larsen will deal with most of the corvids, the few trap-shy magpies or carrions can usually be cleared up using decoys or baits. It’s a sport in itself, though patience and fieldcraft can be tested to the limit.
Working a line of well-placed tunnel traps cuts predation by stoats, weasels and rats, the latter an inveterate egg thief that can empty a nest in seconds. At the back end of last game season, there was hardly a magpie on the farm, but a week later, while waiting to ambush acorn-seeking pigeons below a row of oaks at dawn, I noticed what at first looked like a flock of thrush-like birds beginning to stir in a nearby blackthorn clump. Taking them for fieldfares in the poor light, I noticed a familiar long tail as one ventured out. He didn’t get far, but as the rest panicked out of the thorns, I lost count at well over 20!
“A similar thing seems to happen every year now. There’s just an odd wary resident or two, then big bunches magically appear overnight – obviously some sort of local migration.”
The same thing happens with carrions. Like everyone else, we’ve always had a pair or two about the place, but the old saying that ‘If you see a flock of crows – they’re rooks, and if you see a rook on its own – it’s a crow’, certainly doesn’t ring true nowadays. Locally we have a big problem. There are flocks of the things!
I get sick and tired of media wildlife presenters who should – and probably do – know better, repeatedly denying the devastating effect of increasing numbers of magpies, carrion crows, sparrowhawks and the like have upon small birdlife, preferring to lay most of the blame on what is rather loosely referred to as ‘modern farming methods’.
Around 30 or 40 years ago I might have believed it. Many more lethal pesticides were in regular use, countless miles of hedgerows were uprooted to grow more crops, and there was little thought given to conservation. Despite this, there’s no denying the land still supported a far higher songbird population.
The fact is, farmers and landowners are far more conservation minded nowadays – and nowhere better than on good shooting ground. Pesticides are less potent, wider headlands are left, and huge areas of set-aside lay untouched.
Still, the decline continues.
“How do the so-called experts explain this?”
As one who spends much of his life crouched in a hide behind a gun or camera, rather than propping up a comfortable desk dreaming up convenient excuses, the effects of predation are plain to see. Though there’s little or nothing we can do about it, the sparrowhawk explosion is a major cause of the songbird decline. As a past falconer, I must confess to a sneaking regard for the swift little hunter, but I’m sickened by the effect its increase is having on our small birdlife and the countless, pitiful piles of bones and feathers discovered on my travels.
According to RSPB figures, an adult breeding pair of sparrowhawks will kill, on average, around 2,200 sparrow-sized birds during the course of a year. With at least one resident pair on our small patch – don’t try to tell me it makes no difference!
Add to this the massive amounts of eggs and young taken by ever-increasing predatory species; corvids, foxes, badgers, feral cats, ‘liberated’ mink and suchlike, and the songbird decline doesn’t take too much working out – does it?
I suspect the various conservationist organisations are in something of a quandary. Were they to promote or even condone the sensible culling of predators, they would risk losing monetary support from many well-meaning, though largely ignorant members who know no better.
It’s far less hassle to leave it to nature, and allow our wildlife to apparently ‘find a natural level’. To some extent this is true, but as predator numbers are regulated by the availability of edible prey, any songbird revival will be held firmly in check if the predatory species are not controlled.
“The overall end result can only be a comparatively empty countryside with very few predators and correspondingly, very little prey.”
Trouble is, being omnivorous, the burgeoning crow and magpie population will simply switch to another diet when the supply of eggs and nestlings runs out. I’m no learned scientist with the paperwork to prove it, just a practical countryman who sees everyday evidence of what goes on around me. The signs are everywhere – if you can see and understand them. Sooner or later something has to be done. Like it or not, conservationist bodies could do no better than to study well-keepered ground, and follow what is a prime example of sensible, practical and long-term conservation, instead of occupying their valuable time with theory, thought and biased sniping against the sporting and farming community.