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The sad story of Red Robbo and the sparrow hawk

Friday 12 December 2008

Our countryside commentator John Sheard will this morning trek down to his allotment despite the fact that is covered with a layer of snow three inches deep lying on a crust of earth frozen to a similar depth. He will go not to do any gardening but to feed his new robin

FOR several years I had a close gardening friend who kept me company, made me laugh, and did a good job on keeping down the wire worms which had infected my vegetable plot after I unwittingly imported them in a load of farmyard manure.

I called him Red Robbo, after the notorious shop steward who over a decade in the 1970s onwards brought the car manufacturer British Leyland to its knees. My Red Robbo did no-one any harm, however, because he was a robin, and he and I became bosom pals over several years.


He would perch on my spade or on the drystone wall as I did the winter digging, bright eyed for wire worms and the odd leather jacket I unearthed. He would take the odd small worm if there was nothing better on offer – he loved the pests best, for which I was truly grateful – and to save his wings he would perch on the rim of my wheel barrow as I trundled it around the plot. He would even fly between my legs and the barrow.

One spring morning he was hopping around, chirping merrily in what I took to be ornithological gossip as I had my head down planting out brassicas seedlings, when I heard a flurry of flapping wings and a muffled but anguished protest. I looked up just in time to see Robbo being carried away in the claws of a big and beautiful sparrow hawk. Then both were gone.

What brings this incident to mind is an article in the current issue of Bird Table, the magazine of the British Trust for Ornithology’s Garden BirdWatch scheme, which describes the massive comeback of the sparrow hawk which, says writer Mike Toms, “was effectively extinct in many parts of its British range just a few decades ago.”

Now, it is making itself rather unpopular by raiding bird tables in private gardens – often to the distress of the caring householders and their children. There is also a growing clamour from racing pigeon owners who want laws protecting this wonderful bird lifted so that it can be shot. Every time a homing pigeon fails to return, it seems to me, this particular set of bird lovers blame the sparrow hawk.

Now this leaves me in something of a personal dilemma. I have doubts whether a sparrow hawk could in fact bring down a fully grown and presumably fit racing pigeon but there is no doubt that they are beginning to patrol bird tables and areas where householders put out bird feeders: I see it happening regularly.

And although I miss Red Robbo, I would hate to see a new wave of persecution of the hawks. They suffered for centuries at the hands (or rather guns) of game keepers and were almost wiped out by organo-phosphate pesticides in the 1960s. But what to do?

Sadly, there is no escape from nature red in tooth and claw

Well one step taken by wife and I is to feed our song birds – undoubtedly the sparrow hawk’s favourite prey – by putting food inside bushes and shrubs, where the swooping sparrow hawk cannot penetrate. And I am particular careful at the moment, when birds are dangerously short of food in this cold snap, on how I care for Robbo 11.

I am training a new robin on my allotment, you see, and it takes some patience. Robins like forage for food on the ground, which makes them an easy target as I learned to my cost, so now I break of concentrated balls of high-protein bird food on a patch where I grow my parsley in the corner of two hedges, overhung by bushes and a large copper beech.

To get there un-detected for a surprise attack, a hawk would have to walk – and that, I think, is not their favoured modus operandi. When and if Robbo 11 gets more friendly – he’s a young bird and still a little cautious – I shall toss him the odd wire worm or leather jacket to a sheltered spot under the raspberry canes or into the taller brassicas.

This, of course, might not fool a wily hunter but what choice to I have? My feeding is probably important to keep my budding new friend alive this winter and I would, of course, be heart-broken to lose him. But if that were to happen, there is one slight consolation: the loss of one creature is keeping another one alive. Sadly, there is no escape from nature red in tooth and claw.

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