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Good news week for gold crests and windfarm haters

Friday 10 March 2006

Our countryside commentator John Sheard revels in a week of good news for the countryside which has said Goodbye to a hideous windfarm and Welcome back to one of our prettiest wild birds

TO MAKE their book-keeping easier, the Met Office has now declared that spring officially starts on March 1 rather than the traditional March 21. But as I look out of my window this morning, there is little sign of that longed-for season.

The best thing I can report is that the rain has melted the last of the snow and ice brought by the devastating cold spell of a week ago - we recorded one night temperature of -10 C - but despite the dismal weather, the week's countryside news had a definite spring in its step.

Last weekend, I was proved wrong and am delighted to admit it. I was sure that the Government would go ahead with the proposal to build the country's biggest windfarm at Whinash, between the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales national parks, with scores of windmills higher than St Paul's Cathedral.

In fact, the planning inspector threw out the plan and, surprise, surprise, the Government agreed not to over-rule him. Does this mean that after eight long years, the townies in Westminster and Whitehall have finally grasped that country folk have a voice - and can shout very loud indeed when roused?

That might be a little over-optimistic - one wind farm ban does not a spring make - but then came more good news: one of our loveliest song birds, the gorgeously plumed goldfinch is alive and well and thriving at the bottom of the garden.

When I was nobbut a lad, the goldfinch was a regular sight in the hedgerows and open fields but back in the 1970s it began to die out. One of the reasons for that was the switch to winter, as opposed to spring, wheat planting. In the old days, stubble from the previous year's crop lay in the fields over winter, providing ideal foraging for birds like the goldfinch.

There was a time when the scientists thought that the bird might go extinct, or at least become so rare that twitchers (bird-watchers) would need to travel the length and breadth of the country to see one. But, glory be, this wonderful creature has been saved by... we gardeners.

By chance, my wife and I paid a visit to a new cash and carry store in Preston last weekend and, to my surprise, one whole wall of the place was covered with sacks of wild bird feed and a score or more of different types of bird feeders.

There were nuts and seeds and cakes of fat for tits and other birds to peck at - vital nutrition if our song birds are to survive the last bitter days of this long winter (I reckon it has been going on for five months now). These offering have long been familiar in small pet shops run by kindly old ladies - but this was in a superstore the size of an aircraft hangar.

Feeding wild birds has become big business and we Brits are obviously suckers for it. Across the water in France, they shoot and eat anything feathered that flies. Here, we serve them gourmet dinners. So my wife bought another two seed feeders to add to our already largish stock of such items and we went home feeling good.

Then, on Tuesday, the much respected British Trust for Ornithology issued a public Thank you to we gardeners for feeding wild birds in general and, in particular, saving the goldfinch from its sharp decline (See News).

So Mrs S and I felt even better, which makes the cost of the sacks of bird feed now cluttering our cellar seem a wise investment. It may seem going over the top to make such a fuss about a tiny song bird but after years of decline in many of the countryside's once plentiful species, here at last was a success story.

And that success was created by ordinary folk who don't mind shelling out a few bob every now and again to save the pretty little things which enliven our gardens all year round. We British, of course, have been known around the world for centuries as over-sentimental animal lovers. I say, thank God that here is one of our old traditions still intact.

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