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A happy Christmas for Robin Redbreast?

Friday 23 December 2005

Our countryside commentator John Sheard worries about a Christmas threat to a Christmas icon - and finds to his horror that for fifty years he has been compounding the problem

UNTIL I opened my email this morning, I thought I had finished my Christmas shopping. But as soon as I have finished writing this, I shall have to rush out for one last emergency buy. Or Red Robbie Two might not survive the festive season.

Reason for my alarm is the latest press release from an organisation which I hold in great esteem (and which I have written about many times in this column) the British Trust for Ornithology, arguably the world's leading organisation for research into bird life.

It told me that at a time when the very icon of an English Christmas, Robin Redbreast, is on a million greetings card, it is under severe threat this festive season from lack of food, along with many other garden birds because of a shortage of seeds and berries from autumn.

A happy Christmas for Robin Redbreast?
Image source: www.bto.org

That was bad enough but there is still time to come to the rescue. What appalled me more was the revelation that for something like half a century, I may actually have been harming our robin population because of what was, literally, and old wife's tale.

When I was nobbut a lad, my grandmother taught me to put bacon rinds onto the thorns of our rose bushes to feed our resident robins in winter. We also tied them on bits of string for the blue tits to practice their acrobatics on as they pecked away hanging upside down.

But to my horror, the BTO says in its statement: "Some foods are unsuitable for birds with things such as bacon-rind and desiccated coconut actually being harmful. Don't put out the turkey carcass and leave it there to be picked on as it will soon go off and become a health hazard to birds."

Now I have made a point of taking bacon rinds for robins in my various veg patches for years. I have also stripped off leftovers from the turkey and left those out for carnivorous birds since my wife and I had out first ever Christmas lunch together.

And, believe it or not, I already had a guilt hang-up over a pet robin, Red Robbo, who was my constant gardening companion for several winters up until two years ago. When I was doing my winter digging, he was sit a yard away waiting for me to toss him the latest morsel, a small worm or, better still, a leather jacket or wire worm, two terrible pests gone to a useful end.

If he had been a dog, he would have stood on his hind legs and begged. But I think my presence gave him a false sense of security for one day, as I was stooping in my bean trench to find him a treat, I heard a scuffle, a tiny painful shriek, and I looked up just in time to see him being carried aloft in the claws of a sparrow hawk.

I swear to God that his little eyes were looking straight into mine, full of disappointment that I had not protected him better. I still feel the guilt even though I now have Red Robbo Two, hopefully a direct descendent, to help me with the digging. Now I throw any treat to him under the shelter of my black-current bushes.

But must finish now. Must rush off to the pet shop before it closes, to buy a mixed bag of nuts and seed or wild bird food which are now widely available, as recommended by the BTO. Must feed Robbo 2 before we start the Christmas excess. I hope my readers will follow suite. Merry Christmas.

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