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Avian SOS as early winter grips

Friday 3 December 2010

Our countryside commentator John Sheard has donned his walking boots every day this week to trek to his allotment. There was no gardening to be done under five inches of snow but he fears “his” wild birds are facing a battle for survival

WHEN I was nobbut a lad, as they describe childhood in this part of the Yorkshire Dales, winters were hard and old wives’ tales were rife. One of them declared that if there were lots of berries on the bushes come autumn, a hard winter lay ahead.

At the beginning of November this year, there were more berries on the hawthorn hedges on the way to my allotment than I have seen for decades. A neighbour’s cotoneaster had berries of such orange brilliance and in such profusion that you would swear they lit up the back lane at night.

Expensive guest

Last weekend, I took out my camera to illustrate this column with the scarlet hawthorn harvest. But when I got there, all the berries had gone, gulped down by the birds in gourmand frenzy. Then the snow came, the earliest heavy falls since 1993, and here was cause for curiosity – and concern.

Was there some truth in the old wives’ tale? Did the birds know that severe weather was on the way? Those are intriguing questions but there is also a much more worrying dimension to this phenomenon: the birds usually save berries as a last resort to guarantee survival in the later months of winter.

And now they are gone, with Christmas still three weeks away, how will they survive a bitter January and even worse February, the months that the Russians call their “God-given generals” who defeated both Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler?

Now I admit to a certain frisson of pleasure in asking this because it will be yet another blow to the global warming lobby who have been assuring us for the whole of this century that winter in England has almost ceased to exist – until last year, of course, when we had the harshest weather for 30 years.

The fact is that the world has been cooling since 1998 is rarely mentioned. But I do not wish to go into that now – again! – because I have a more immediate concern to ponder: can I ensure the survival of “my” birds, both at the allotment and at home?

The good news here is that there are thousands, perhaps millions, of British families who share my worries. The supermarket giant Tesco reported early in November that sales of wild bird seed have risen by a staggering 140%. And this item is far from cheap at a time of national financial crisis when thousands are worried about their jobs and mortgages.

This news was accompanied by a personal milestone for me, the arrival on one of my feeders a week ago of a greater spotted woodpecker, an absolute first in this neck of the woods for this wonderfully coloured bird – it would not be out of place in a tropical rain forest – has until recently made it home much further south than the Yorkshire Dales.

But it also created a minor problem: it was feeding on one of those flat, mainly fat, square blocks which you place in a made to measure wire cage. I was running out of such items because, mostly, I feed seeds and crushed flat fat balls (I crush them because it was recently revealed that if hung up whole, birds can damage their beaks or tangle their talons in the plastic net that holds them).

This problem arose just as the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) issued a warning that the cold snap had sent hundreds of thousands – probably millions, in fact – scrambling back to garden feeders from their normal perches in open country. This is what happened in last year’s big freeze and saved countless numbers from starvation.

I am no fan of the way that the big supermarkets squeeze their suppliers to the point of bankruptcy

So here we go again, I thought, as I donned my walking boots and set off through the snow for more supplies: my car was so deep in drifted snow that I couldn’t be bothered to dig it out. What followed was a shock.

Just three of those fat blocks recommended by the bird-watching TV star Bill Oddie cost £5.20. Bird seed, similarly praised by Oddie, cost £2.30 for a kilo (I usually buy this in bulk but being on foot in heavy snow was limited to what I could carry). So I coughed up a substantial £7.50 for bird food which, if I’m lucky, might last until this weekend.

Now I am not accusing Oddie, who recently left the BBC Naturewatch programmes, of profiteering and I believe that some of that price goes to charity. But I could have bought a joint of pork or a half shoulder of lamb at such a price, enough to keep Mrs. S and I for two meals and perhaps sandwiches for my next trek allotment bound.

But “Every little helps” Tesco boasting about hugely improved sales of bird food does arouse my suspicions, for I am no fan of the way that the big supermarkets squeeze their suppliers to the point of bankruptcy whilst building huge profits for themselves.

In my youth, we would string peanuts or bacon rinds and hang them up to encourage blue tits into their aerial balletics. Other birds made do with left over bread enlightened, very occasionally, with handful of shop-bought meal worms for a favourite robin. Should we go back to the old ways?

But to keep my spotted woodpecker alive if we are in for another harsh winter, cakes of fat with a few added seeds at £1.70p a piece seem to be on the menu for at least three more months. It looks like smaller, less costly, Christmas presents for my human family this year – and Bucks fizz seems off the Christmas morning menu for sure.

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