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Winter 2004/2005

Do you remember when Robins were the only birds to sing during the winter months? I think I do. Most birds sing to establish their breeding territories and attract a mate, so the job of singing is usually confined to the male of the species who will carry it out with gusto from the early spring until, with luck the young family is being raised in the summer. Usually by late summer most birds no longer defend their territories and often become far more gregarious. The various tit species will club together, often joined by Treecreepers and Goldcrests to form feeidng flocks in the hedgerows and woods, and finches and buntings will forage together for seeds in the stubble. Even fierce predators like Merlins and Harriers who will defend their territories against all comers in summer, are happy to roost communally in the winter. Not the Robin though. Out of the breeding season these aggressive little birds will not even tolerate their spouses. Both sexes take up separate territories and both will mark their boundaries with that mournful little song that we have all come to associate with winter.

However the Robin is no longer the soloist it used to be. In my garden a Song Thrush commenced singing on the 23rd November and has been singing its' heart out at first light every morning since then. Periodically it is joined in song by a Mistle Thrush, Starlings and droning Collared Doves. Do they think it is spring? The roses that continue to bloom in December certainly seem to think so, as do a variety of bulbs bursting forth in the rockery. Me, I'm confused too. The hard winter, I predicted, has not yet materialised, but, we have experienced several days of freezing temperatures punctuated by incredibly mild conditions.

Confusion reigns amongst our farmers too. The Mid Term Review has declared that Arable Area Payments and Livestock subsidies will be replaced from 2005 by the Single Farm Payment. This means that farmers no longer have to chase the most heavily subsidised crops, (remember the blue fields a few years ago when Linseed attracted a generous subsidy?) but they can generally grow crops or animals that will bring them the best price in the market. Unfortunately market prices for many products, including cereals and milk are very poor at the moment. In order to receive these payments they must also take some measures on their farms to conserve and enhance the environment. These measures vary from protecting hedgerows from chemical sprays, to sowing grass margins along water courses and even leaving unsown squares in wheat fields for Skylarks to nest and feed. In fact we are still waiting for Defra to publish full details of the many schemes.

The overall winners from this radical policy change are wildlife and the environment. Perhaps the only real benefit to farmers is likely to be enhanced shooting and habitat for game. Certainly under the old Countryside Stewardship Scheme the planting of nectar and pollen mixtures not only benefited bees and other insects, but the knock on effect of a rich insect fauna is food for game birds, particularly our native Grey Partridge.

Grey Partridges are still very rare in our parish, but it is slowly increasing in other parts of the county, and the research farm of Advanta Seeds at Boothby Graffoe, where many acres of game cover and "environmental mixtures" have been sown for a number of years, has witnessed a huge upsurge in their population. The introduced Red-legged Partridge is quite common around Rippingale - we've even had them in our garden! The wild population is augmented by reared birds in the autumn, the latter, which never seem to fly very readily, are I'm sure the first to succumb to the guns or predators such as foxes.

Talking of mammals, we have added a new one to our garden list recently. I had assumed hat the holes that appeared under our bird feeders would be home to a Wood Mouse or perhaps a House Mouse both of which occur in the garden and outhouses. However whilst watching the birds on the feeders one Sunday afternoon, the occupant revealed itself. It was to my surprise a Bank Vole, a tiny rodent more normally associated with woodlands or mature hedgerows. This individual had opted for an easier life and we watched it make short, cautious forays from its hole to pick up a peanut or sunflower dropped by the birds above.

As we progress in to the more cruel months of the year, do remember to feed the birds. Apart from the usual denizens of your garden, you too might attract something less usual, be it on wings or four legs!


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