What NOT to give your garden birds for their Christmas dinner


Posted on December 20, 2013

Blue Tits enjoy VHF Super Suet Balls

However many people we have sat around our dining tables this Christmas day, there’s always going to be leftovers. And if the leftovers aren’t on individual plates, there’ll certainly be plenty in roasting dishes and on turkey carcases. So how about giving the leftovers and scraps to your your garden birds? Absolutely not, and in fact it could actually kill them if you do. So here are the reasons…

Turkey fat, unlike suet, stays soft when it cools and can easily be transferred to birds’ plumage when they feed. This can then cause damage to the natural water-proofing and insulation of feathers, with this in-turn proving fatal to a bird in cold and wet weather.  So the number one rule is not to use turkey fat in any way for your garden birds.

Next up is the problem of salt, which most of us liberally use as part of the preparation of turkey and indeed other meats such as goose and beef. Salt is toxic to birds and a small bird eating, for example, turkey skin or beef dripping with salt in it, will be in danger.

Finally there’s the problem of meet juices, which once outside and assuming the air temperature isn’t well below freezing, will quickly become rancid and provide an immediate breeding ground for harmful bacteria such as salmonella – which can certainly kill wild birds and very quickly.

So what can you give your garden birds at Christmas? Well you could be forgiven for thinking that, as a bird food company we’re bound to say ‘proper bird food’, but actually that’s the truth of the matter. Yes there are a few things in your Christmas kitchen that won’t harm wild birds, but the fact is that it’s better just to keep to the feeds you usually do – e.g. sunflower hearts, suet blocks and niger seed.

And your garden birds won’t mind at all, because do they know it’s Christmas? No they don’t! 

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Highland Wildlife Diary for November

by Roger Hughes (Guest Blogger)

Posted on November 30, 2013

Tame Chaffinch

Tame Chaffinches, the delightful Dipper, and a beautiful Red Kite

We’ve had our first snow of the season – a good covering which lasted a day or two – and plenty of hard frosts to help take the last of the golden leaves off the silver and downy birch trees which we have on our land and partly cover the hills around us. Large flocks of chattering Fieldfares have been flying overhead in search of rowan trees and to strip them bare of berries, and I’ve so many tame Chaffinches in the garden that I can’t walk out the house without being surrounded by the wee fellas all badgering me for yet another scoop of sunflower hearts. So winter has now definitely arrived here in the Highlands.

And on those Chaffinches, they really have become that tame and will literally follow me into the garage building where I keep the seed. Becoming so tame is an interesting trait which this species displays, and certainly relative to other finches – e.g. Greenfinch and Goldfinch – they can become amazingly trusting of humans. I’ve no idea why this is, though having googled ‘tame chaffinch’ I can see that many people have had similar experiences and concluded the same as me.

Anyway, a few other highlights from our croft in Sutherland over the last month…

Most afternoons we take my wife’s three ponies down to a large flat meadow we have which runs alongside the river Fleet. We do this because the meadow the ponies spend most of their time in and which is next to our house, is now largely bare of any half-decent grazing. The ponies actually get excited about going to the meadow, and as soon as we get their head collars on they know where they’re off to and are busting to get there. But actually I enjoy the short excursion myself and often see something interesting along the way, and about 10 days ago I especially enjoyed the sight of a Dipper just metres away and perching and bobbing on an overhanging branch before it dived back into the ice cold water of the river. Dippers have long been a real favourite bird for me, and I remember the very first time I watched them on the River Lyn in North Devon some 37 years ago.

A few months back I mentioned I’d been watching a lone Red Kite which had taken up residence around a quarry a few miles away, but since then I’ve twice seen it flying over our croft. Although Red Kites are now very common again in some parts of the UK, in the north of Scotland they remain very rare so it’s been really exciting to see this most elegant of raptors grace the sky above us. I just hope it doesn’t fall victim to illegal activity from a mercenary gamekeeper, and I say this not just because such people are still, sadly, numerous across the Highlands, but more specifically because there’s a pending court case involving three gamekeepers from the very estate the bird is most seen over. I do find it staggering that, in 2013, I should still have such concerns, but that’s the very unfortunate reality of the situation. That said, I equally think it’s important not to tar all gamekeepers with the same brush and, as it happens, the head gamekeeper for my local estate lives right opposite me and I consider him to be a really good guy (see my last month’s blog for an example of why).

In the month ahead and with our new stable block and storage shed now largely complete, I’ll be taking to the hills again and will hopefully have some interesting wildlife tales to tell in my December blog.


Our monthly columnist from the Scottish Highlands

A long-time associate of Vine House Farm is Roger Hughes, who now lives in the north of Scotland and the beautiful county of Sutherland. Roger helps us with a range of business services, but he’s also a keen bird watcher, is very knowledgeable about feeding birds, is a general nature lover, and also partly earns his living from writing. He lives with his wife, Julie, and they have a small croft with a wide mix of habitats from wooded riverbank to meadow and moorland – all good for wildlife of course. So with all this in mind, Roger now writes a monthly column for the Vine House Farm website which we very much hope you’ll follow and enjoy.





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Vine House Farm supplies organic vegetables to The Great British Wind Meal

by Vine House Farm (Vine House Farm)

Posted on November 28, 2013

Wind, Solar, Waste Oil and waste heat from a Refrigerator

The Great British Wind Meal takes place at Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage and Deli in Plymouth on Friday 29th November, and Vine House Farm are supplying organic cauliflowers, organic butternut squash, plus honey from bees which feasted on the farm’s famous sunflowers in the late summer months. 

The event is to celebrate the wind industry’s role in helping to sustain Britain’s farming communities, with Renewable UK teaming up with energyshare and food campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall to host a roundtable discussion and meal where the ingredients are from farms and suppliers powered by wind energy.

Nicholas Watts, the owner of Vine House Farm, is a keen advocate of renewable energy and is therefore going down to Plymouth to take part in the discussion, and of course for the fine meal.

Vine House Farm has 5 types of renewable energy on its land: 

3 x 2 megawatts turbines which are part of the Deeping St Nicholas wind farm 

2 x 75 kilowatts turbines at Baston Fen

200 kw of solar panels on farm buildings with more to be erected

The building where bird seed is packed is heated by the waste oil from the farm’s tractors

The building where the bird seed is mixed is heated by the waste heat from the 1000 ton refrigerated potato store

In addition to the above, Nicholas has operated a biomass boiler since 1980 to heat his house and office, and 2 years ago this was extended to include the farm shop, his daughter’s cake studio, a nearby flat and two farming museum halls which are also on the farm complex.

Nicholas commented: “I’ve long been in favour of renewable energy, and it goes hand-in-hand with the approach we take to farming here at Vine House, which is all about sustainability and a deep respect for the environment. I’m delighted to support the Great British Wind Meal, and very much look forward to sampling Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s cooking.” 

Maf Smith, Deputy CEO of RenewableUK expressed his gratitude: “On behalf of RenewableUK and energyshare I’d like to thank Vine House Farm for donating butternut squash, cauliflower and honey for our Great British Wind Meal. Their generosity has made this special meal possible, helping to spread the word about the benefits of wind power for food producers up and down the country.”

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North Highland Wildlife Diary for October

by Roger Hughes (Guest Blogger)

Posted on October 31, 2013

Edward the duck

Edward the duck

Over the last month I haven’t once set out for a walk in my local area. Or anywhere for that matter. This is unheard of me but with a stable block and store room to complete before the winter sets in, almost every daylight hour of every day has been used to carry big stones, put big stones in place, then go and get some more big stones.

However, working outside still means that I see what flies overhead or ventures into our garden or croft land. And as far as the garden is concerned, a pair of stoats has been terrorising our three chickens as these ferocious little killers frantically dart and leap about – at times playing and at other times hunting for voles and mice. Plus also the odd rabbit, though I manage to keep most of these unwelcome long-eared cabbage eaters out of my garden having fairly successfully made it rabbit-proof with 200 metres of chicken wire (I actually call it rabbit wire…) several years ago. And, thankfully, although the stoats have been frightening the hell out of the chickens, they haven’t as yet attacked them – though that’s likely to become an issue as we get into the full winter (see my wildlife diary entry for last January to learn why).

But anyway, as I do what I need to do with piles of big stones, I’ve had the company of the tamest Mallard duck you’ll ever meet – that’s him in the photo above. My wife calls him Edward (can’t quite remember the reason for that choice of name) and this is his story…

Back in the mid-summer about 1000 young Mallards were released on a loch high in the hills behind our house croft. These are hand-reared birds which get fed twice a day by the gamekeepers, are well looked after, but, on day, will probably meet their fate as a result of a shotgun fired by the estate owner or one of his chums. In truth I don’t quite get what the fun is in all of that, but anyway that’s the way of the world in the Highlands and I’m not going to use my column inches here to bang on about the rights and wrongs of it.

Now Edward started his life as one of these ducks, but managed to injure a leg before he could fly and was rescued and brought home by the head gamekeeper (who says that gamekeepers don’t have a heart…). The gamekeeper lives opposite me, and young Edward spent a few weeks in the relative luxury of his old metal shed. Then once able to fly – though still with a slightly dodgy leg – Edward was set free and clearly decided that, rather than return to his mates and a potentially life-threatening existence on the loch, he’d instead make the short journey to our garden across the road and live the good life on Vine House Farm’s finest Poultry Mix (normally reserved for our chickens) – and very well he’s doing on it too, as I’m sure you’ll agree from the photo of him above.

So Edward has now become one of our family, and, as he was anyway hand-reared, only associates human beings with good things and specifically food. So he’s as tame as tame can be, which is a tad ironic given his likely fate if he hadn’t been rescued by the caring gamekeeper.



Our monthly columnist from the Scottish Highlands

A long-time associate of Vine House Farm is Roger Hughes, who now lives in the north of Scotland and the beautiful county of Sutherland. Roger helps us with a range of business services, but he’s also a keen bird watcher, is very knowledgeable about feeding birds, is a general nature lover, and also partly earns his living from writing. He lives with his wife, Julie, and they have a small croft with a wide mix of habitats from wooded riverbank to meadow and moorland – all good for wildlife of course. So with all this in mind, Roger now writes a monthly column for the Vine House Farm website which we very much hope you’ll follow and enjoy.

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The ideal combination of bird foods and feeders

by Vine House Farm (Vine House Farm)

Posted on October 18, 2013

Blue Tit enjoying Sunflower Hearts from a hanging feeder

One of the questions we’re often asked at Vine House Farm is what the best combination of different foods and feeders is to attract the most number of bird species to a garden. In some ways it’s a bit of tricky question and there probably isn’t a single best answer, plus at certain times of year the combination would change – e.g. including live mealworms in a special feeder during the breeding and fledgling season. However, what we certainly can do is detail the main factors to consider and, from this, come up with an outline list. So let’s start with those main factors…

Softbill or seed cracker

Birds that feed in gardens can roughly be split between softbills – which is not a scientific term but is the one widely used to very broadly describe birds which eat soft foods such as insects and fruit – and those which can crack open seeds. So the Robin and Blackbird are softbills, whereas all the finches aren’t and, unlike the softbills, can crack open a seed in their bill. However, it isn’t quite a simple as that because Blue Tits and Great Tits are technically softbills but can crack open a large seed such as black sunflower if they hold it in their feet and chip away at it – which they’re very good at doing. And to make it a tad more complicated, many softbill birds – the Robin being a good example – will eat very small seeds with the husk on as they’re able to digest this. So the main points here are:

  1. Softbill birds such as the Blackbird, Robin, Dunnock and Song Thrush cannot eat large seeds which have their husk on – e.g. black sunflower
  2. Most other garden birds can eat all sizes of seed, with finches cracking the seed open in their bill and tits holding the seed in their feet to chip away at the husk

Perching and non-perching

Many softbill species are ground feeders. That isn’t to say that those that are won’t feed in trees and hedges and, as a good example, Blackbirds will readily feed on Hawthorn berries in hedges. However, their preference is to feed on the ground and a hanging feeder is normally going to be out of the question for them. That said, hanging feeders which have round perches which, effectively act as a platform, will be used by some species and particularly the Robin.  

All other garden birds such as tits and finches are typically comfortable on hanging feeders, though Chaffinches struggle to balance on straight perches and much prefer the round platform type.

Food preference and nutrition levels

Most of the foods we buy and put out for the birds in our garden are of course not ones that they’d naturally find in the wild. Niger seed is a good example, as this tiny seed actually comes from a plant called the Ramtil plant which grows in naturally in Ethiopia. But this fact hasn’t stopped it becoming a favourite with Goldfinches and Siskins, and indeed the ready supply of it in some gardens is believed to have helped the Goldfinch population increase in recent years. Niger is rich in fat and protein and no doubt birds have a way of sensing its food value to them. Long-tailed Tits love suet blocks, Tree Sparrows love red millet, Great Spotted Woodpeckers love peanuts and suet pellets in a cage feeder, but virtually all garden birds love sunflower hearts. So many birds have food preferences but safe to say that, if you only put out one food, then sunflower hearts would be the safest bet to go for.

Our list

The above aren’t all the factors and the ones we’ve covered we’ve skimmed over a bit, but you’ll be getting the idea anyway. So our ideal combination of foods and feeders for an average sized suburban garden would be this:

  1. Hanging feeder with round perches such as the Onyx (or you can add Perch Rings to a Droll Yankee feeder with straight perches) and filled with Sunflower Hearts or Black Sunflower seed.
  2. A second hanging feeder, and again with round perches, with a high quality husk-free seed mix such as VHF Ultimate Energy with Suet, or VHF Premium High Energy Mix.
  3. A hanging Niger Seed feeder.
  4. A hanging Mesh Feeder and filled with either Suet Pellets, Peanuts, or a combination of both.
  5. A hanging Suet block or Suet Ball Feeder.
  6. Importantly, a Ground Feeding Tray or Compact Ground Feeder and filled with any husk-free mix, or Sunflower Hearts, or Suet Pellets, or Chopped Peanuts (never whole ones) or any combination of these foods. Note that as this sort of feeder will be used by the ground feeding softbill species such as Blackbird and Robin, larger seeds with their husk on won’t be suitable.
  7. And certainly for the breeding and fledging season, a Caged Live Food Feeder filled with Live Mealworms.

This list isn’t of course definitive and there will be other combinations which will work, but what it does represent is something which takes account of the main factors outlined above, and therefore will give you every chance of attracting the largest number of different bird species to your garden. 

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Attracting winter migrants to your garden in the winter

by Vine House Farm (Vine House Farm)

Posted on October 11, 2013


The winter months bring different dimensions to feeding the birds in our gardens, but arguably the most interesting and rewarding is successfully attracting winter migrants that have travelled from northern Europe, Scandinavia and even Siberia.

So what species are we talking about here? Well we can broadly split them into two groups: Firstly, there are the species which we already have in our gardens such as the Chaffinch, Blackbird, Starling and Robin, all of which we get an influx of because, being an island, the UK is less cold than mainland Europe.  And it’s because of this influx that often quite large numbers of Chaffinch will suddenly arrive in gardens having flocked with resident birds, plus the odd solitary Blackbird you may have seen on your lawn is joined by five or six others – though generally all keeping a safe distance from each other and squabbling when their personal space is invaded. 

And now onto the handful of rather special species which don’t breed in the UK (or don’t in any numbers – there has been the odd exception), with the main ones being Brambling, Fieldfare, Redwing and, best of all, the Waxwing. Bramblings are a finch and closely related to the Chaffinch, which they bare more than a passing resemblance to. Fieldfares and Redwings are both thrushes, though, unlike Blackbirds and Song Thrushes, are highly gregarious in the winter months and will often form huge flocks of both species. And the Waxwing sits in a family of its own, though is related to the Starling which it resembles in flight.  

So how can you attract these winter visitors to your garden? For all the species which join those already here in the UK such as Chaffinch, Goldfinch, Siskin and Blackbird, then just carry on with your feeding regime as you normally would, and with foods such as suet pellets, seed mixes, peanuts, sunflower hearts and niger seed. And if you’re fairly new to feeding birds, then you’ll find a host of information in our information and advice pages. For Bramblings, as these anyway flock with Chaffinches, they can be quite easy to attract and will eat sunflower hearts, black sunflower seed and seed mixes. They’re typically happier feeding on the ground, but will also go onto hanging tube feeders. Fieldfares and Redwings come straight to gardens to look for food but only when the ground is frozen or covered in snow. The simple way to attract them is apples cut in half and placed on the lawn, which they can make very short work of indeed! Waxwings are far more unpredictable and indeed their numbers into the UK hugely fluctuate on an annual basis, but if they are present in your area then again apples are the best way to attract them. 


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A successful summer in Devon

by Vine House Farm (Vine House Farm)

Posted on October 04, 2013

Young Kestrels

Andrew Cooper is best known as a broadcaster, presenter, writer and international award winning wildlife film-maker for the BBC through his documentaries and live reports on wildlife and environment issues. Andrew also owns Church Farm in South Devon which is often featured on BBC Autumnwatch for the vast array of wildlife present on his farm, a lot of which can be seen on his live web cameras including a bird feeding station sponsored by Vine House Farm.   Andrew is extremely passionate about wildlife and we are proud to welcome him as a guest blogger. 

This year will linger long in memory. Here in Devon, as elsewhere in the UK, we enjoyed hot sunny days for weeks on end.  The summer was how it should be with butterflies in abundance, grasshoppers and crickets everywhere.  Even hay making was almost a leisurely affair, no mad dash between showers. On one of the hottest days a BBC film crew from the 'One Show' arrived to feature the farm and the badgers in our wood. A great day enjoyed by all. Especially when the star attractions turned up on cue. 

Meanwhile, down in the barn our resident kestrels bucked the national trend and raised four youngsters. And they were not alone. Their neighbours, the barn owls, also successfully reared three fluffy white offspring. Across the UK the picture for these beautiful owls is not good, so it was especially pleasing to watch three youngsters emerge just before dusk in late August. This was perhaps their first expedition into the big wide world. The three owlets sat on a nearby gate peering into the grass. One then pounced on something  in the field. Probably a fast moving grasshopper. The others quickly followed. Now all three were in the grass looking at each other as if to ask, what next? With a bit of effort they flew back to the gate and repeated the peering, pouncing, circuit and bumps for the next half hour. Eventually a parent owl swooped low over them carrying a meal into the barn. The owlets scrambled to follow.

Summers end has brought misty mornings and flocks of small birds searching hedgerows and meadows for food. The bird table is getting busy again and our peanuts and seed vanishing fast. Looking at our bird table camera, I had better go and top them up!

Andrew Cooper, Church Farm, South Devon.

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North Highland Wildlife Diary for September

by Roger Hughes (Guest Blogger)

Posted on September 30, 2013

Bee feeding on the nectar of apple mint

North Highland wildlife diary – September

September brought us some fine late summer weather, with the last few days of the month being especially warm and dry. So perfect conditions for the last of the Swallows to depart for Africa, and equally perfect – and helped by a westerly tail wind – for the huge skeins of geese to arrive from Greenland and Iceland. To have both Swallows and migrating geese present at the same time – albeit for just a week or so – always makes this time of year rather special.

The last of our young swallows left our garage on September 27th, and I was certain of this as I’d got into the habit of checking the rafters each night to see how many were roosting. The geese, which are Western Greylag and Pink-footed, started to arrive on the 16th September but really got going a week later. In fact when I went outside at about 7am this morning to let the chickens out, my eyes immediately went to a cloud-free sky as the honking of hundreds of geese in their usual v-formation passed directly over out croft. And if I see that sight and hear that sound a thousand more times, I’ll still never tire of it.

Earlier in the month and ahead of my attention being turned towards migrating Swallows and geese, I became especially excited by the sight of two small and rare birds (well, ‘rare’ for where I live) which suddenly appeared right outside my office window – they were House Sparrows. Now you could be forgiven for wondering how, in a country which boasts two species of eagle, Capercaillie and Red Throated Diver (to name just a few of the exquisite species we have), how I could become excited by the humble House Sparrow. Well the reason is that this was only the second time I’d seen the species on our land, and although there are pockets of them breeding elsewhere in our parish, I imagine the very low density of houses and other buildings in our immediate area makes it unattractive for them. But I’m hoping this position will change with the new stable block I’m currently building for my wife’s ponies, and certainly I’ll be including a few sparrow nest boxes on the structure.

One other bird I’ve enjoyed watching close-by in the last month is a Red Kite, which has taken up residence in and around a disused quarry about a mile from our croft. I imagine the bird is from the Black Isle reintroduction programme, with this being only about 25 miles away – nothing for a Red Kite which would barely have to beat its wings to make the journey. Much further north from us there just wouldn’t be the suitable habitat for the species, so it just might be that we currently have the most northerly Red Kite in the British Isles – which is a very nice thought indeed.

Something else I’ve really enjoyed in the last few weeks is watching literally hundreds of bees feeding on the flowers of a large clump of apple mint which we have in our veg patch. The plant flowers very late in the season so, in this respect, is competing with far fewer nectar-rich plants, and this combined with the warm weather meant it has simply been festooned in bees. I took the snap above to record the event, though apologies I don’t know which particular species of bee it is (learning bee species is something I’ve promised I’ll do during my eventual retirement).

I imagine the month ahead will bring in the first of the Fieldfares and Redwings from Northern Europe and Scandinavia, which will feast on rowan berries as soon as they make landfall. And this year’s crop of rowan berries looks to be a bumper one, so no shortage of food for these two species of thrush for a month or so. I also imagine that the fine weather won’t last (in fact I’d put money on it…), but as I look out the window now, on the very last day of September, it remains warm and dry. So outside is where I’m now heading.


Our monthly columnist from the Scottish Highlands

A long-time associate of Vine House Farm is Roger Hughes, who now lives in the north of Scotland and the beautiful county of Sutherland. Roger helps us with a range of business services, but he’s also a keen bird watcher, is very knowledgeable about feeding birds, is a general nature lover, and also partly earns his living from writing. He lives with his wife, Julie, and they have a small croft with a wide mix of habitats from wooded riverbank to meadow and moorland – all good for wildlife of course. So with all this in mind, Roger now writes a monthly column for the Vine House Farm website which we very much hope you’ll follow and enjoy.

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Nicholas wins RSPB Nature of Farming Award

by Lucy Watts (Vine House Farm)

Posted on September 24, 2013

Nicholas ringing Barn Owls with Grandson Tim

A big Thank you for everyone who voted for Nicholas in the RSPB Nature of Farming Awards. It gives me great pleasure to inform you all that he has been announced the winner against a tough field of seven other regional finalists. He couldn’t have managed it without you all as the final decision was by public vote.

Here at VHF we are all very proud of Nicholas, it amazes us all and me especially with the effort and enthusiasm that he ploughs into the wildlife on our farm and surrounding area. The prize we believe is a just reward for a lifetimes dedication and devotion to wildlife. Well done Nicholas!

The prestigious RSPB Nature of Farming Award recognises the vital work certain farmers do in making a real effort for wildlife on their own farms. Each year the RSPB invites entries from farmers across the UK, with expert judges then determining eight regional winners.

Martin Harper, the RSPB’s director of conservation commented: “Nicholas impressed us with the way he constantly comes up with original ideas for creating habitat, not frightened to try something new but equally not afraid to admit when things need to change.  Nicholas has a profitable farm business that gives nature a home. His many years of experience provide others with knowledge and motivation to follow in his footsteps, so his impact is far beyond his own farm gate. We are delighted to showcase the excellent work that farmers like Nicholas are achieving for our threatened farmland wildlife.”

Nicholas commentedIn 1992, after recording the breeding birds on my farm for 10 years, I realised there had been a big drop in numbers. This worried me so I set about trying to reverse that decline and I have succeeded with several species.

“Since the mid 1990’s the national numbers of some farmland birds, such as the yellow wagtail, have continued to decline. I’m delighted to have shown that it’s possible to buck this trend, but I feel that farmers need to be given as much support as possible to put wildlife back on the land.

“We all want good quality food to eat, but most also want colour and birdsong in our farmed countryside too. Now, more than ever, we need the Government to support farmers like me and the many others who are doing good things for wildlife but who can’t continue without the financial support to do it.”

Paul Wilkinson, The Wildlife Trusts’ Head of Living Landscapes also congratulates Nicholas and comments:

“I am thrilled that Nicholas has won this award. He has succeeded in running a profitable farm while giving a huge helping hand to nature - The Wildlife Trusts recognize that farmers and landowners should be the backbone of conservation and restoration efforts. The support that he’s given to The Wildlife Trusts has been invaluable.”

To find out more about the work that Nicholas carried out here at Vine House Farm please visit our conservation page.

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Time to start thinking about the shorter and colder days and what this means to your garden birds

by Vine House Farm (Vine House Farm)

Posted on September 16, 2013


It might be an ever-so slightly depressing thought, but there’s no getting away from the fact that the best of the summer weather is well behind us and the nights are starting to draw in. So with that in mind, there’s no better time to start thinking about the autumn months ahead and what this means to your garden birds. 

The autumn months can be times of plenty for some species of song bird, with an abundance of fruit and berries on trees and shrubs, plus seeds on wild flowers. Of course it isn’t quite as simple as that, because in some areas of the UK – in particular urban areas – there will be far less natural food available. Added to which, the competition for available natural food actually increases with an influx of birds from mainland Europe, Scandinavia and even as far away as Siberia. These birds can broadly be split into two groups:

Firstly, there are those rather special species which don’t breed in the UK, and these are Brambling, Redwing, Fieldfare and Waxwing. The second group are actually many of the common species we know and enjoy in our gardens all of the year, including the Robin, Blackbird, Chaffinch and Starling. So all of these species, and more, flood into the UK each autumn for the simple fact that our winter is a lot less harsher than the areas they’ve spent their spring and summer in. (Though, and certainly for our last winter in the UK, some birds which made the journey might have been questioning their own judgment on that one…) So if you’ve ever wondered why that solitary pair of Blackbirds you’ve been watching in your garden over the summer months is suddenly joined by three or four others and each getting grumpy when their personal space is encroached on by another, then that’s the reason. 

So yes there will be at least some natural food for your resident garden birds, their cousins joining them from the continent, plus the special species such as Brambling, but it certainly won’t last and, anyway, there’s now the extra enjoyment to be had from feeding those birds that have made such a long journey to be in your garden. 

Interestingly, the behaviour of Blackbirds and Robins which come from the continent can be slightly different to residents of the same species, with shyness being the obvious example – so that’s often a good way to tell residents and migrants apart. More interestingly, this difference in behaviour isn’t as a result of their migration, but actually how birds from the same species have evolved slightly differently on different land masses. But anyway, this shyness doesn’t extend to not eating the food you put out for them, though it might mean you’re not able to get quite as close to watch them.  

As for your feeding regime, if you’re already putting out a good selection of foods including seed mixes, sunflower hearts, niger seed and suet products, then there’s no need to change this. However and as the months progress and we get nearer to the winter, increasing the quantity of food obviously makes sense. But the main thing to really think about is whether the way you feed the birds in your garden is going to provide a source of food for both the resident species and the influx joining them from the continent. Hanging feeders will be fine for tits and finches (though Chaffinches and Bramblings both prefer to feed on the ground), but for Blackbirds and Robins, for example, they’ll want to feed on the ground or a table. So if you don’t have one already, then a ground feeding tray is ideal and will allow for all species of bird to feed.  It’s also worth remembering that softbill species like Robin, Blackbird and Song Thrush, can’t crack the husk off seeds, so be sure to provide foods such as sunflower hearts rather than black sunflower seeds in the ground feeding tray. Suet pellets are also ideal.

So look out for those winter migrants as they start to arrive later in September and into October, and do let us know how you get on with feeding them in your garden. 

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North Highland Wildlife Diary for August 2013

by Roger Hughes (Guest Blogger)

Posted on August 31, 2013

Our monthly columnist from the Scottish Highlands

A long-time associate of Vine House Farm is Roger Hughes, who now lives in the north of Scotland and the beautiful county of Sutherland. Roger helps us with a range of business services, but he’s also a keen bird watcher, is very knowledgeable about feeding birds, is a general nature lover, and also partly earns his living from writing. He lives with his wife, Julie, and they have a small croft with a wide mix of habitats from wooded riverbank to meadow and moorland – all good for wildlife of course. So with all this in mind, Roger now writes a monthly column for the Vine House Farm website which we very much hope you’ll follow and enjoy.

North Highland wildlife diary – August

Anyone who loves wildlife will also love having birds nest in their garden. And I certainly do. There’s something about truly wild creatures choosing your tree, your shrub, your little tucked away cranny right between the garden shed and slightly dilapidated trellis hanging on by a thread to the boundary fence, to nest and rear their young.

But with Swallows it’s even more personal. Swallows don’t just nest somewhere on your land, they invade your living space a little and actually come inside to a porch, garage or outbuilding. In my case it’s a garage-come-workshop, and ever since we’ve lived here (4 years) a pair of swallows has nested in there. For me the relationship goes further though, because along with the enjoyment of having these long-distance migrants make their summer home right above my quad bike, they cause me considerable stress and anxiety. And they firstly do this by choosing the most insanely precarious rafter to build their nest on (though, in the mind of a swallow, no doubt there’s a different assessment as far as health and safety is concerned), and secondly, and partly due to the first point, I then have to contend with the pre-fledgling swallows who, unsurprisingly to me, fall out of the nest and end up in all sorts of inaccessible places – e.g. behind the chest freezer.

This year the usual pattern of events has unfolded, and just two days ago I was rescuing a youngster off the ground from the pair’s second brood, and gently placing it into a shallow cardboard box up in the rafters – the nest being near impossible to access. The action seems to have paid off, as the adults have continued to feed it – despite the odd and somewhat premature excursion the fledgling has decided to take outside the relative safety of the garage.

In another four weeks or so my Swallows will be away and heading south to Africa, with their departure spelling the onset of autumn gales and much shorter days. But I’m trying not to think about all that too much, as ahead of such weather and less daylight hours I have a new stable block and storage shed to get built. My wife sees the benefit of our new timber building as being purely for her ponies, but I rather have something else in mind: some new and safer nesting sites for my returning Swallows.

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Why hygiene is such an important part of feeding garden birds

by Vine House Farm (Vine House Farm)

Posted on August 21, 2013

Cleaning bird feeder

If you’ve ever seen a bird in your garden, and most probably a Greenfinch, Chaffinch or Siskin, with puffed-out feathers and behaving in a lethargic way, then the chances are that it’s caught a disease such as salmonella – and most probably from a dirty bird feeder or bird table. Of course that offending feeder or table might not have been in your garden but that of a neighbour, but that’s all the more reason we’re so keen to spread the word about the dangers!

We all know that feeding garden birds is fun, rewarding, and can also make a real difference to the breeding success and survival rates of many species. However and like many good things in life, there can be a downside and in this case the danger is of actually putting the lives of the birds we love to help at risk. But it’s important to say right now that if feeders, bird tables and bird baths are kept clean, then this risk is largely removed and any diseases which a bird does pick up will be just a natural occurrence that happens in the wild.  

So why are feeders and bird tables a potential hazard if not kept clean? Although birds such as finches feed in flocks in the wild, when they’ve exhausted a natural food source – e.g. seeds on dandelion heads – then they quickly move on. So in other words they’re rarely in the same place feeding for very long together. Now compare this to the same birds feeding day after day on the same feeder in the same place in your garden, and you can quickly imagine how a problem might develop if the feeder isn’t clean and a bird contracts a disease – which then becomes a vicious circle as the bird continues to feed for a time (before dying) and, in so doing, passes the disease to other birds. There are a number of these diseases, but salmonella is the most common as it is a bacterial infection – hence how it can occur on feeders and tables which aren’t clean.

The other major cause of disease is in the build-up of seed husks – in particular from black sunflower and niger – underneath feeders, as  bacteria will develop in these and that causes a problem when birds rummage through the husks looking for food. 

Keeping the birds in your garden safe from disease is easy and actually takes very little time, so here are our top tips…

1.    Give all hanging feeders, ground feeders and bird tables a regular clean with special products like the ones on this page. Once a month is often enough if you don’t have too many birds or plenty of feeders to spread the load, but for lots of birds and fewer feeders then once every two weeks is ideal.

2.    Move the feeders to a different location in your garden to give the ground below the feeders a chance to recover and to discourage birds from picking up dropped food on it.

3.    Always clear up dropped seed husks from the ground or from a table and ideally every few days, and if you don’t have time to do this then only use husk-free feeds.

4.    If you have a bird bath, then ensure the water is kept clean and also give the bath a good clean every week or so (critically, if you use any sort of cleaning agent then ensure you thoroughly rinse the bath out before refilling). 
And how about the neighbour’s feeders if you think they’re a problem for the birds which also come to your garden? Well please pass on the information you now have to them, as we’re sure that anyone who feeds the birds will care enough about them to make that extra bit of effort to ensure their welfare takes priority. 

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by Andrew Cooper (Guest Blogger)

Posted on August 14, 2013

Andrew Cooper and Mike Dilger BBC The One Show

In late July the midday sun was hot and we were expecting visitors.  The toasted fields around the farmhouse had only recently been cut, baled and cleared of hay.  Right on time, two cars swept up the drive and disgorged their contents.  A BBC crew of four jumped out, stretched their legs and gratefully accepted the offer of tea, coffee and fruit drinks.  A pile of filming equipment soon followed, including two dozen black cases of assorted sizes, reels of cables, tripods and lighting stands.

Bristol to South Devon is not far, but long enough on busy roads in sweltering heat.  I know because for the best part of thirty years working as a television producer in BBC natural history, I regularly travelled that route.  Greeting the BBC team gave Jeanne and I chance to catch up with two former colleagues and meet new faces.  After weeks of e-mails and phone calls it was good to see Lara, the director and presenter, Mike Dilger, who needed no introduction.  The cameramen, Mark  and Jo, knew our farm well from previous visits.  Jo had already worked here for several weeks with BBC Autumnwatch, and Mark was always my first choice for filming BBC wildlife documentaries worldwide.  This time the subject was badgers.

For nearly twenty years at Church Farm we have put out peanuts for our wildlife.  One camera on the birdtable and another outside the lounge window for us to monitor the activity and share the visiting creatures through our website. Watching wild badgers for nearly two decades has given us a valuable insight into the lives of these secretive creatures.  More remarkable are the images we obtain of wild badgers at home.

A few years ago I produced a BBC 'Natural World' documentary, narrated by Sir David Attenborough.  The latest low light cameras were positioned underground using mammal experts with special licences and a bevy of BBC engineers. The results astonished everyone, including me. Never had wild badgers been observed so successfully, in such high quality, over such time. Best of all, the underground cameras are still recording.

Now  'The One Show' wanted to know what had happened since the making of that documentary and the subsequent Autumnwatch broadcast.  First  we recorded the introductory sequence in the shimmering heat of the field between the house and badger wood. At this time of the year badger trails are obvious, their green tracks wandering through scorched grass.  A few takes later and a change of location, we completed the first part of the sequence.  Mike's enthusiasm as a television presenter and knowledge of nature as an ecologist, made the entire shoot a real pleasure.

As daylight began to fade and the air cooled, the old house walls glowed with warmth.  Inside and out new cables had appeared everywhere. Infra red lighting and remote cameras cluttered the lawn.  The dining room was transformed into a temporary control room. Monitors mounted on tables and window ledges, video recorders on the floor.  Jo, on his knees, plugged in more cables while Mark set up a tripod and filming lights in the lounge.  A brief break for our supper and the badger nuts were put out.  More tea and coffee with stories of past filming adventures were eventually interrupted by the glimpse of a badger rushing past a camera underground. Everyone scrambled into position. Then a few minutes later, the first badger appeared in front of the house.  Two more soon joined the feast. Just as well I had put out extra peanuts for this special event. 

Over previous days a couple of badger cubs had started to accompany their mother when she left the wood.  We revelled in watching the family's antics.  All too soon the last nuts were scoffed.  After a quick drink from our garden pond, the badgers headed out across the fields or went back to their woods. Our attention then turned to the underground cameras and it was not long before we heard the first badger return home.  Scuffling down a tunnel it entered one of the chambers and flopped into bed. 

Watching wild badgers is endlessly fascinating.  Even better is seeing them at home underground, relaxing, playing and making their beds in pitch darkness, unaware we can see them.  Even for us it is still a thrill and a privilege to watch such scenes.  This was Mike Dilger's first time and his face was a picture. 

Coming soon to a screen near you. 

BBC 'The One Show' goes nuts with the help of Vine House Farm.

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Highland Wildlife Diary for July 2013

by Roger Hughes (Guest Blogger)

Posted on July 29, 2013

Black-throated Diver

Our monthly columnist from the Scottish Highlands

A long-time associate of Vine House Farm is Roger Hughes, who now lives in the north of Scotland and the beautiful county of Sutherland. Roger helps us with a range of business services, but he’s also a keen bird watcher, is very knowledgeable about feeding birds, is a general nature lover, and also partly earns his living from writing. He lives with his wife, Julie, and they have a small croft with a wide mix of habitats from wooded riverbank to meadow and moorland – all good for wildlife of course. So with all this in mind, Roger now writes a monthly column for the Vine House Farm website which we very much hope you’ll follow and enjoy.

North Highland wildlife diary – July

In last month’s column I promised I’d spend some time watching wildlife on the coast, so I’ve done just that with two trips out – both of which were productive.

Our nearest seaside village is Golspie, which is about 10 miles from our home. I often park there and walk along the beach, which stretches for some 4 miles to a tiny hamlet called Little Ferry. It isn’t perhaps the most picturesque length of coastline in the Highlands, but it is relatively quiet and peaceful, and, once you’re a half a mile or so away from the village and therefore out of range of most dog walkers, you pretty-much have the beach to yourself. In fact my record is to walk the entire 4 miles and only see one other person – and that was also in July.

There’s usually plenty to see, with Moray Firth’s Bottlenose Dolphins occasionally swimming close to the shore, and, more typically, the bobbing heads of Grey Seals keeping a watchful eye on the unfamiliar sight of a walker and occasional dog. But arriving at the beach last week I had a special treat, and was literally taking my telescope out of the car when I first spotted it some 50 metres from the shoreline and easily visible from the car park: a Black-throated Diver. And the photo above is of the very same bird, though with just a 300mm lens on my camera that was the closest I could get.

I watched the bird for some 30 minutes, though for most of the time it was just relaxing and was fairly inactive in the very warm July sun (and, yes, we’ve also had a heat wave up here...). It occasionally took time to preen its exquisite plumage – and ‘exquisite’ hardly begins to describe the plumage of the Black-throated Diver – but other than that it obligingly kept still for me to snap photos of it.

I continued my walk up the beach and then noticed a group of about twelve birds on the water and perhaps 150 metres from the shore. A quick look with the telescope revealed... they were also Black-throated Divers! So this was by far the most of this iconic north-west Highland  species I’d ever seen at once, and although I knew they often headed for the inner Moray Firth after breeding, I was little surprised to see them so early in mid-July. So I’ll need to research that a little more, though I do know that they’ve been enjoying an increase in breeding numbers and this largely down to an RSPB initiative to build floating rafts for them in the Sutherland lochs where they breed, and this aimed at overcoming the problem of their usual loch-side nests becoming submerged when water levels rise after heavy rain.

My other trip to the coast was to the far north and a lovely little harbour called Dwarwick which is close to Dunnet Head in Caithness. In truth the trip was with a friend for fishing as much as it was bird watching, though I’ve always combined the two interests and, indeed, it was fishing with my dad on the lakes in Hampton Court Royal Park when I was a child which first got me interested in birds! (There can be a LOT of time to watch birds when you’re out fishing but catching nout.) Anyway, there were plenty of seabirds to watch with the most notable being a few Great Skuas which passed just overhead and with their usual purposeful flight in the hunt of other seabirds to terrorise – including Gannets which are a far larger bird – in order to make them drop their catch.

And did we catch anything? We did indeed, with my friend catching five Dogfish – which are a small species of shark – and me catching one plus a Flounder. The Dogfish were of course all returned safe and well to the sea, though the Flounder came home with me and made a very tasty lunch the very next day.










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Nicholas- an RSPB Nature of Farming Award Finalist 2013

by Lucy Watts (Vine House Farm)

Posted on July 19, 2013

Corn Bunting eating winter barley


It gives me great pleasure to announce that Nicholas, the owner of Vine House Farm, and my father, has been nominated as a finalist for The RSPB Telegraph Nature of Farming Award.

The RSPB award celebrates the fantastic work farmers can do for wildlife. It is the UK’s biggest farm and wildlife award and is open to all farmers whatever their farming system. It is not about who has the rarest species on their farm it is more about doing positive work for wildlife. Farmland covers 75% of the UK, and is therefore vital for wildlife. Many species are dependent on farmland and of course farmers are crucial to the long term health of the countryside. With farming methods becoming increasingly efficient many farmland species are struggling.

Nicholas’ love and dedication of wildlife is simply quite amazing. The time, effort and money that has gone into his research and conservation measures is phenomenal. Reaching the final we feel is just reward for his hundreds of hours work for wildlife each year. He constantly amazes me with the amount of energy and determination he dedicates to conserving wildlife. He not only monitors species on our own farm but also the whole of the local area, Deeping Fen- covering 70 miles each spring just to record what is breeding where. His work doesn’t stop there, by carrying out these surveys he can then see what is working where for wildlife, and he is then able to implement them on the farm here. This year for example he has started to create 3 areas for butterflies and insects on the farm.

Managing a farming business to be commercially viable and a haven for wildlife is not easy, but here at VHF Nicholas has shown that it is possible. For more information on the work that has been carried out here visit http://www.vinehousefarm.co.uk/conservation.aspx

We need your help! The overall winner is chosen by you the public so please show Nicholas your support and vote for Nicholas today http://www.rspb.org.uk/ourwork/farming/natureoffarming/finalists/index.aspx

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Wildlife news from Church Farm in Devon

by Andrew Cooper (Guest Blogger)

Posted on July 18, 2013

Andrew Cooper on his Farm in South Devon

Andrew Cooper is best known as a broadcaster, presenter, writer and international award winning wildlife film-maker for the BBC through his documentaries and live reports on wildlife and environment issues. Andrew also owns Church Farm in South Devon which is often featured on BBC Autumnwatch for the vast array of wildlife present on his farm, a lot of which can be seen on his live web cameras including a bird feeding station sponsored by Vine House Farm.   Andrew is extremely passionate about wildlife and we are proud to welcome him as a guest blogger.

Visit www.wildlink.org for live camera footage of birds feeding on Vine House Farm seed and for more information about Church Farm and the inspiring work Andrew does for wildlife and the community. 

What a difference a year can make.  After a long, cold dry spring, this year looked like a repeat of the soaking wet last. But all similarities stopped at the farm gate.  Temperatures crept higher in June, and then soared in July.  Summer arrived in Devon with a real scorcher. Early morning now dawns with clear blue skies. And the sound of skylarks over the hill beyond the woods is only drowned by the happy twitter of swallows in the courtyard.  Looking across the valley, young rabbits are hopping everywhere which are easier to see now we have started cutting our grass fields. Most evenings fox cubs play in the meadows, while the badger cubs closely follow their foraging mother.  Only the urgent ke ke warning call of a bird of prey, carrying in the still warm air, makes them stop in their tracks. Down in our barn near the tractor shed, the resident kestrels have a new brood.  Although we have a camera on the nest, the young soon start moving around. It is only when they start flying that we can count the young kestrels this season. Nearby the barn owls are also carrying food back to the same barn after dusk. So we must wait and see.  Meanwhile many of our small bird nest boxes have done well and insect numbers are rising fast. It looks as though this could be a great butterfly year. 

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The problem of Jackdaws and Rooks on bird feeders and what you can do to solve the problem


Posted on July 08, 2013

Jackdaw on a Nuttery caged feeder

One of the most frequently asked question we receive at Vine House Farm at this time of year is “What can I do about the Jackdaws and Rooks swinging on my feeders and also scaring the smaller birds off?”

Well before answering that question with some practical tips, a bit about these two species and the family they come from. Both Jackdaws and Rooks are species of crow – or ‘corvid’ to give them their other common family name (from the Latin family name Corvidae). Jackdaws and Rooks are two of the seven species of corvid which we have in the UK, with the others being Carrion Crow (with a sub-species, the Hooded Crow, in the north of Scotland), Raven, Magpie, Jay and Chough. Corvids are intelligent birds and indeed the family is generally recognised as the most intelligent across all of the world’s bird families.

The natural diet of the Jackdaw is typically cereal grain, insects, fruit and some carrion, though they will sometimes take the eggs of other birds and, occasionally, even young birds – though nothing like to the extent of their cousin the Magpie. Rooks don’t normally take eggs or young birds, with their diet mainly consisting of cereal grain, insects and earthworms, plus some carrion.  So back to the problem, and it’s worth saying that although Jackdaws and Rooks can often be a nuisance on garden bird feeders at any time of year, during the spring and early summer months this can increase. This is because Jackdaws, typically, nest in or close to human habitation – chimneys pots are a real favourite for a nest site – and Rooks nest in colonies in tall trees which might be in parks or woodland close to towns and villages. This means that both species of bird are looking for local food, and ‘easy local food’ if they can get it, and garden bird feeders therefore become a prime target. Once the young are fully fledged and no longer reliant on their parents for food, both species tend to disperse and feed in flocks, often together as it happens, in fields and other open areas.Adjustable Ground GuardNow, some solutions to the problem...

1.    Ground feeding

If food is available on the ground as well as in hanging feeders, both Jackdaws and Rooks will go for what’s on the ground. And they’ll do this because both are naturally ground feeders. So the solution here is a Ground Guard like this one which will completely solve the problem.  

2.    Hanging feeders Nuttery Caged Fat Ball Feeder

The solution here is a caged feeder, with options for peanuts, seed, suet blocks and balls, plus combination feeders for seed and suet balls. Suet blocks and suet balls seem to be a real favourite for both Jackdaws and Rooks, so if nothing else a caged feeder for suet products is probably a must if you’re having problems with either or both species. Over the last month or so we’ve been trialling Nuttery feeders like the one shown here, and have found them to be very effective. 

Once the above solutions are put in place, not only will Jackdaws and Rooks not be able to get to the food, but they’ll soon learn they can’t and will largely stop coming to that garden. However, before you consider entirely deterring Jackdaws and Rooks from your garden, here’s a final thought…. Both species, in moderation (!), can be very entertaining and interesting to watch. So along with taking the measures outlined above, putting a handful of seed on the ground just once or twice a day will ensure you can still enjoy them from time-to-time – and remember that both species need food in just the same way that Robins and Blue Tits do – but they won’t be hogging the feeders all day and scaring off the smaller birds. 



We have jackdaws nesting all around us in chimney pots and we long ago gave up protesting at their hanging on the bird feeders, even the one hanging In a pyracantha. We put seed out on the tops of walls, they come and take and then go leaving plenty of time for the smaller birds to feed. As you say they are very intelligent if not very pretty, good job we humans are not judged as to whether we eat or not by our attractiveness.

Mrs Helen Edwards 07/08/2013 13:14:05

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North Highland Wildlife Diary for June

by Roger Hughes (Guest Blogger)

Posted on June 30, 2013

Osprey hovering

Our monthly columnist from the Scottish Highlands

A long-time associate of Vine House Farm is Roger Hughes, who now lives in the north of Scotland and the beautiful county of Sutherland. Roger helps us with a range of business services, but he’s also a keen bird watcher, is very knowledgeable about feeding birds, is a general nature lover, and also partly earns his living from writing. He lives with his wife, Julie, and they have a small croft with a wide mix of habitats from wooded riverbank to meadow and moorland – all good for wildlife of course. So with all this in mind, Roger now writes a monthly column for the Vine House Farm website which we very much hope you’ll follow and enjoy.

North Highland wildlife diary – June

Early in June, my wife and I again took on the task of looking after a croft belonging to some friends who were taking a week’s holiday. Although the croft is only about a mile and bit away from ours, it has a very different look and feel as it’s a true hill croft and some 150 metres higher than where we live. Julie, my wife, takes on the job of feeding and watering our friends’ two horses, and I take on the job of feeding the chickens and watering the poly tunnel. Julie takes her time, but I rush my chores as I’m keen to take a short walk to the shore of a hill loch which our friends are fortunate enough to have on their land.

The loch sits just below the brow of a hill and therefore suddenly becomes visible as the top of the hill is reached – some 100 metres from the poly tunnel! Reaching the top of the hill on the first morning and with the lettuces brought back to life with a thorough drenching, I immediately saw the sight I was hoping for: an osprey. But not just an osprey; an osprey with a large brown trout in its talons. Well, ‘large’ for an osprey to be carrying and certainly the largest fish of any species I have seen an osprey hold.

Although excited by the great views I was having of the bird, I was also kicking myself for showing the lettuces so much care and attention, because it seemed pretty clear that if I’d arrived at the top of the hill just 20 seconds earlier I’d have seen the osprey actually catch its not insignificant meal. But hey... that’s bird watching for you, and this will probably be the only time you’ll ever hear about the care of lettuces being blamed for not getting a better view of an osprey (or, for that matter, the words ‘osprey’ and ‘lettuce’ in the same sentence).

What also made the spectacle of the osprey special and interesting is what it did next: Rather than gain a little height from the water and head straight for its nest – assuming it was a breeding bird it will have had young on the nest in early June – it instead spiralled on a thermal until it was barely a speck in my binoculars. I’ve since thought long and hard about why it would have done this, and can only conclude that its nest was some distance from the loch and it wanted to gain as much height as possible to be able to make a relatively easy glide back with its unusually large fish. But that’s just me speculating and I really don’t know the answer for this unusual behaviour, though I am pretty sure that the nearest pair of nesting ospreys to that loch is about six miles away, so perhaps it was one of those birds.

Further daily trips to the same hill loch didn’t bring anything quite so exciting, though I did enjoy watching a pair of red-breasted mergansers – a stunning bird which, and just like the osprey, previously suffered centuries of persecution for having the audacity to take the odd fish from the nobility’s rivers and lochs.

Away from our friends’ croft, I’ve had a number of walks into the local hills in the last month and have been pleased at the number of fledgling birds I’ve seen – in particular wheatears and stonechats. In fact on one particular walk – and one I’d never previously taken – I counted approximately 10 pairs of wheatear, most with young out the nest, from a stretch of track of probably no more than one and half miles. Which must be the highest density of breeding wheatears I’ve ever seen, though the habitat was pretty-much perfect for them with short cropped grass courtesy of grazing sheep, scattered boulders and just the odd stunted rowan tree.

The past month has been relatively dry here in our corner of the northern Highlands, with the first three weeks of the month hardly bringing a drop of rain. This dry weather always reminds me of the need to provide birds with a supply of clean water, which I do even though we have a river on the boundary of our land. I do this because for some species – e.g. those that nest well away from the river – it’s just easier for them to have easy and safe access to water in order to drink and bathe. But if you’re reading this and live in an urban area, then there’s a good chance that the only clean water your garden birds will have access to is what you provide for them. That being the case, I’d very much urge you (if you don’t already of course) to have a bird bath in your garden and, critically, ensure the water is kept clean. I’ve written more about this subject here if you’d like more information.

During July I’ll be spending some time on the coast, so hopefully I’ll have some interesting stories to bring you at the end of the month.


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The importance of providing your garden birds with clean water

by Vine House Farm (Vine House Farm)

Posted on June 20, 2013

Young Blackbird bathing

With warmer summer weather upon us – at least on some days! – and with many young birds having now fledged the nest, the importance of providing the birds in your garden with a supply of clean water becomes even more important.

The birds in your garden need clean water for two key reasons: Drinking and bathing. Drinking is especially important to seed eating birds such as finches, as, and unlike birds which largely eat insects, there is no moisture in their natural food or the seed and seed mixes you put out for them. Birds which eat more insects such as Tits and Robins also still need to drink, as their diet will not always just be insects and other invertebrates – e.g. both will eat seeds and other foods you put out such as suet pellets and suet blocks.

Ensuring your birds’ water supply is clean is absolutely essential, as dirty and stale water can harbour diseases which can prove fatal to birds. So if your bird bath is being used regularly, then rinse it out whenever the water looks discoloured and refill with clean water (which hardly takes a minute).

As for bathing, this is important to most species of bird because the process helps keep their plumage in good condition, and this partly because wetting the feathers loosens dirt and also makes them easier to preen with the bird’s bill.

But actually there’s third reason to put clean water out for the birds in your garden: It’s great watching them drinking, bathing and apparently enjoying the latter! The picture here of a young Blackbird taking a bath illustrates the point perfectly.

A further point to consider is that if you live in an urban area, then for many birds their only source of clean water is that provided by bird lovers in their gardens. So it’s that important!

Top tips for providing clean water for garden birds:

  • Use a bird bath and position it well away from undergrowth where predators like cats can hide

  • Bird baths are available as those on a stand or placed straight on the ground – both are fine

  • Crucially, ensure the water is clean and fresh and this may mean changing it several times a day during the summer months especially

  • Occasionally, give the bird bath a proper clean to remove dirt and algae but be sure to thoroughly rinse before refilling to ensure any cleaning fluid is completed removed

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North Highland Wildlife Diary for May

by Roger Hughes (Guest Blogger)

Posted on May 31, 2013

Siskin feeding on niger seed

Our monthly columnist from the Scottish Highlands

A long-time associate of Vine House Farm is Roger Hughes, who now lives in the north of Scotland and the beautiful county of Sutherland. Roger helps us with a range of business services, but he’s also a keen bird watcher, is very knowledgeable about feeding birds, is a general nature lover, and also partly earns his living from writing. He lives with his wife, Julie, and they have a small croft with a wide mix of habitats from wooded riverbank to meadow and moorland – all good for wildlife of course. So with all this in mind, Roger now writes a monthly column for the Vine House Farm website which we very much hope you’ll follow and enjoy.

North Highland wildlife diary – May   

As with most areas of the UK, the last month or so has been unusually chilly here in the Northern Highlands and only on a few days has it really felt like spring. But even the most reluctant of migrant birds can only put their journey north off for so long, and even though most have been late arriving we now have our usual mix of species here. Well, other than one – the Wheatear. As I mentioned last month, the Wheatear is my favourite summer migrant and in past years they’ve nested on our land – in fact two years ago right outside my office window. But this year I haven’t seen a single bird close-by, which is both a disappointment and a worry. And like so many of our once-common song birds, Wheatears have been declining in recent decades and are currently on the ‘amber’ list. Of course one year’s local absence doesn’t represent a trend and it might be that I’ve just been unlucky, but if no Wheatears show-up next year then I really will be concerned.

On a brighter note, the Swallows arrived back the first week of May to again take up residence in our garage-come-workshop. I’m not sure if they’re the same adults or combination of adult and young from previous years, but for definite they’ll be one or the other. And I know this because of the determined and purposeful way the birds behaved when they arrived back, as the pair noisily circled outside the roller doors until I opened one of them and they immediately swooped in and took up residence on the rafters! I must say that even after many decades of observing birds, it never fails to knock my socks off when I consider the fact that a bird like a swallow can leave its nest late summer, fly to South Africa, then return the following Spring and not just to the general area it left some 7 months before, but the very exact spot. Just think for a moment how utterly amazing that is.

Staying with Hirundines (the family name for Swallows and Martins), I had to take a flight from Inverness to Bristol the week before last (as you do…) and was sitting in the restaurant area at Inverness airport and looking out to the runway and the odd plane sitting on the tarmac (as you might imagine, Inverness airport has rather less traffic than Heathrow), and quickly became aware of large numbers of House Martins flying close to the building. Watching their flight direction, I soon noticed that there were a number of their nests on the underside of the terminal building canopy. And then an Easyjet 737 pulled up right outside and the passengers flowed off it, with none of this sudden activity distracting the 20 or so House Martins that had made the place their home. So fly all the way from Africa for a summer at Inverness airport?  I think if I were a House Martin I’d rather pick a picturesque croft house on the west coast with some peace and tranquillity around it.

Returning to where I live, we still have large numbers of Siskins, Chaffinches and a few Redpolls coming to the garden to feed, and I’ve kept up the supply of sunflower hearts as I’m mindful that the relatively cold weather has restricted the supply of invertebrates. The siskins, and for some reason especially the males, have become incredibly tame and will literally land within a few feet of me hoping for food when I’m working in the garden.

I’ve also been watching the Oystercatchers who are nesting on the edge of a river meadow very close-by, and I imagine the female will be on eggs right now. Meadow Pipits are nesting on the moorland above our land, and we have at least two pairs of Willow Warblers in the woodland below us. And a regular feeder in the field my wife has her ponies in has been a rather aggressive Mistle Thrush who tolerates the presence of few other birds – including other Mistle Thrushes. So I’ve enjoyed watching this largest of our thrushes collect food for its young, and no question that the closely-cropped grass (which is pretty much guaranteed with hungry Shetland Ponies) is an ideal feeding ground for it.

In the month ahead I’m going to spend more time looking at our local pair of breeding Ospreys, so more about that in my June column.

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Another tough breeding season for our garden birds


Posted on May 24, 2013

A young Robin at Vine House Farm

As I drove to work this morning I noticed that the car thermometer was only reading 5C. Pretty chilly for the end of May! What surprised me even more was that there had been a huge hail storm overnight with much of the hail still lying on the floor.

We are the lucky ones tucked up under our duvet covers at night! How does our wildlife cope with such weather extremes and at such an important time of the year when they are trying to rear young. We have seen a number of young Robin’s leave the nests in the last few days here at VHF- will they survive? The bird feeders here at VHF have been frantic due to the cold weather.

The problem for birds when the temperature drops at this time of the year is that insect populations drop, making natural food scarce at a time when the birds need more food to keep themselves warm. What is worse is that most species have broods of chicks that also want feeding. The Super Suet Balls that we have been feeding are a particular favourite of the Starling. We believe this soft type of fat is suitable for the adult birds to take back to the young in the nests as well as offering them a quick energy boost. Our suet pellets have also been popular. We also soak sultanas at this time of the year which are pretty much exclusively eaten by the Starlings, Blackbirds and thrushes, and because of the added moisture can be fed directly to their young. However there is one food above all that is key to helping birds at time of temperature crashes in the breeding season and this is Live Mealworms . A handful of Live Mealworms outside our shop here at VHF will disappear within 10 minutes on a day like today, mainly taken by Robins and House Sparrows directly back to their nests. It has been quoted that a young Blue Tit requires up to 100 caterpillars a day, and so with an average clutch size of 8-12 this makes extremely busy parents!

Our weather is due to get warmer in the next few days- hopefully in time for many of the broods that are trying to fledge in the next few days. The very wet weather in 2012 caused breeding birds huge problems with BTO data showing that many species were down on brood numbers, especially those that were in the wider countryside. Breeding birds that could visit gardens according to the BTO fared better. Let’s hope that the remainder of the 2013 breeding season is favourable!

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Learning to love Starlings

by Vine House Farm (Vine House Farm)

Posted on May 20, 2013

Starlings feeding on suet pellets

If there’s one species of garden bird which gets unfair bad press, then it has to be the Starling. Well, there are also Magpies, Jackdaws and Wood Pigeons – though much of their bad press is often fully justified – so let’s narrow it down a bit and say ‘one species of smallish garden bird which gets unfair bad press’.

So just why is it that you’ll rarely or never hear someone say “Starlings are my favourite garden bird and the more I get on my feeders the merrier “? Well perhaps it’s partly because when they do turn up in your garden they have their mates with them. In fact often quite a lot of mates. And those mates don’t always behave in a terribly orderly and civilised manner but, rather, a bit like a group of noisy yobbos. Taking turns on feeders isn’t an option in the mind of a Starling: no – it’s who can get on the feeder first or push your friend off if he or she beats you too it. And the type of feeder won’t matter too much either, with peanut feeders, suet cage feeders and tube feeders full of tasty sunflower hearts all being viewed as fair game by this speckled, always apparently hungry, and feisty little character.

But can’t some or all of these traits actually be seen as qualities? Well apparently not easily for many garden bird lovers, so at Vine House Farm we’re on a bit of mission to change perceptions and, if we can, encourage folk to start loving Starlings. And actually, and seriously, we do need to start loving them because their numbers have declined by a truly frightening 66% since the 1970s. There are complex reasons for this decline, but a principle one is around the availability of invertebrates during the breeding and fledging seasons. Lack of suitable nesting sites is probably also a factor, with modern buildings providing few, if any, crevices for Starlings to squeeze into – a favourite type of nest site for them.

A few positive things that perhaps we do all seem to agree on, are firstly the Starling’s ability to mimic other birds’ songs and calls (in moorland and coastal areas they’ll even mimic Curlews), and secondly the amazing site of thousands of birds together as they swoop and turn in perfect unison as they prepare to land and roost for the night. And you’ve probably seen this spectacle on various TV wildlife programmes like BBC’s Autumn Watch, but seeing it in real life is something truly special and worth making the effort for (top five spots in the autumn and winter are Westhay National Nature Reserve in Somerset, Gretna Green in southern Scotland, Leighton Moss in Lancashire, Fen Drayton Lakes in Cambridgeshire, and Aberystwyth Pier in mid-Wales).  A third point is that Starlings are exceptionally devoted parents, having only one brood per year and rearing their young in an impeccable manner, which includes showing them the way to bird tables and feeders once they’ve fledged.

So maybe we haven’t quite yet convinced you to start ‘loving’ Starlings, but perhaps just ‘like them a little bit more’? If yes, then there are two things which you can do to help reverse the decline in their numbers. Firstly and right now, providing live mealworms will help with breeding success and help more fledglings survive – and the latter is vital because in past decades around a third of fledgling survived their first year, but now that figure is down to just 15%. Sultanas soaked in water are another great food for them at this time of year. The second thing you can do is put up one or two Starling nest boxes . For this breeding season it will be too late, but don’t worry about that – buy them and put them up now anyway so they’re ready for next year.

At Vine House Farm the humble Starling is one of our favourite birds. It might not be the prettiest bird to look at, it might not have the sweetest song, and it most certainly isn't the best behaved and mannered, but for all those reasons and more we love them just the same. 

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North Highland Wildlife Diary - April

by Roger Hughes (Guest Blogger)

Posted on April 30, 2013

Young wheatears being fed by the adult male

Our monthly columnist from the Scottish Highlands

A long-time associate of Vine House Farm is Roger Hughes, who now lives in the north of Scotland and the beautiful county of Sutherland. Roger helps us with a range of business services, but he’s also a keen bird watcher, is very knowledgeable about feeding birds, is a general nature lover, and also partly earns his living from writing. He lives with his wife, Julie, and they have a small croft with a wide mix of habitats from wooded riverbank to meadow and moorland – all good for wildlife of course. So with all this in mind, Roger now writes a monthly column for the Vine House Farm website which we very much hope you’ll follow and enjoy.

North Highland wildlife diary – April 

Well April hasn’t turned out to be quite the month I expected it to be as far as returning migrant birds is concerned. And that’s an understatement! But still plenty to tell you about from a decidedly chilly past month.

Actually I delayed writing my monthly column until today, Sunday the 28th, as I thought doing so was bound to bring better news on returning migrants. That move has paid off a bit, and I even broke off from writing in the afternoon and headed into the forest close to our croft to see what migrant birds I could spot or hear. However, as I battled against gale force winds and with heavy sleet hitting my face horizontally, I became a tad pessimistic that my venture out would reveal any brave new migrant birds back from Africa. Then just as the sleet shower started to pass over and the biting wind reduced from gale force to whatever the meteorological level is below it, I heard a sound that lifted my spirits immensely: the call of a Cuckoo.

The Cuckoo is a relatively common breeding bird in the area we live in, and this will no doubt be due to the ideal habitat we have for them. This habitat includes large areas of heather moorland which, in turn, has abundant breeding Meadow Pipits on it – a favourite bird of the Cuckoo to target for what only Cuckoos do – plus areas of native woodland which will supply their principle food; caterpillars.

But the bird I’ve been waiting for is the Wheatear, and although I did see one a few days ago about a mile from where we live, none have arrived back on our land to breed as yet. Two years ago we had a pair which nested under some rocks just two metres from the house and outside my office window. The image above shows two of the young birds being fed by the adult male, and I took this snap through the glass as I was sat at my desk so as not to disturb them! So fingers crossed for more of the same in the season ahead.

Swallows and House Martins arrived back on the 20th April, though, as yet, none of the Swallows which have nested in our garage for the last two years. But still plenty of time for them, and hopefully I can report some good news on that front in my May column.

Of the two Osprey nests we have within 10 or so miles from where we live, at least one of the pairs has returned and I’m hopeful the other pair has as well – in truth I haven’t put in the time to go and observe them, but I will.

As for the migrants that have spent the winter with us in Scotland, all have now departed and the middle of April saw immense skeins of Greylag and  Pink-footed Geese heading back to their breeding grounds in Iceland and Greenland. It’s a sight and sound which never fails to move me, as literally thousands of birds can fly over in irregular V formations and all keeping in continual contact with other with their distinctive calling. In fact I often heard them calling in the middle of the night as I lay in bed and they pass overhead (which is worth staying awake for…).

One interesting spectacle I had in the last week, and one I’ve never seen before, was an Oystercatcher frantically mobbing a Raven which was passing over our croft. We have several pairs of Oystercatcher which nest in the field margins, and the sight of the Raven was obviously too much for this one to bear as it quickly flew up and then dive-bombed the Raven. And made a lot of noise in the process with its piercing distress call – and Oystercatchers are very good at making a lot of noise.

So the last month has been unseasonably cold, and not just in the far north of Scotland where I am but in most areas of the UK. This has meant that invertebrates – so including insects and both flying and crawling – have not been at the numbers they should be, and this will have a direct bearing on the breeding success of many of our garden birds. So what can you do to help? Well this is a plea as much as it is an answer, and I really would urge you to order some live mealworms. And if you’ve never bought and put live mealworms out for your garden birds before and you don’t like the idea because, well, they’re wriggly little critters, then you just need to get over the fear! There really is nothing to it, and mealworms are clean and completely harmless. But anyway, the main point is that they’re the perfect food for adults to feed to their young when they’re in the nest and when they fledge, and by making the effort you’ll also be making a major contribution to the breeding success of the birds in your garden – in particular Robins, Blackbirds and House Sparrows. So gone on… get that order in now.







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Migrant birds are leaving and arriving on our shores this week

by Vine House Farm (Vine House Farm)

Posted on April 16, 2013


The middle of April is an important time for migrant birds, plus also a fascinating one as it represents a short spell when the species which have been with us all winter are yet to depart for the countries they breed in, can actually still be present at the time other species are returning from Africa to breed here in the UK. For example, you could see a Brambling before it heads back to Scandinavia on the same day you see a Grasshopper Warbler returning from Africa. And of course, each of these species may briefly also have the very unfamiliar sight of each other!

There are actually far more species of purely migrant songbirds which arrive in the UK in spring to breed, than there are species which have wintered here and breed further north in Europe. However, what skews the numbers a bit is that some of our common garden songbirds such as Blackbird, Chaffinch and Robin, have their numbers swollen in the winter months because many arrive from the continent to winter here. So the flock of Chaffinches you’ve been feeding all winter in your garden might actually now be returning across the North Sea to Norway, Sweden or even further east into Russia – or at least some of them might as the picture is further confused when flocks from overseas mix with those of the same species that breed in the UK!

Of the songbird species which don’t breed in the UK and are now returning to their northern breeding grounds, the main ones are Brambling, Redwing, Fieldfare (though a handful do breed in a few specific locations in the UK) and Waxwing. Now compare this number to the approximate 25 plus species of songbird and other species such as the Cuckoo which migrate to the UK to breed each spring, and you’ll get an idea of the difference.

Of course some species of migrant bird are very much synonymous with the start of Spring, with the first sight of a Swallow effortlessly rising in flight to clear a hedgerow, to the iconic call of a Cuckoo as it looks to find mate, being two of the best examples.

And the first and last to arrive? Well Chiffchaffs are often the first, with this small and rather indistinct warbler making its presence quickly known with a song which its name derives from: ‘chiff chaff, chiff chaff’ and so on. And the last is generally the Spotted Flycatcher, whose arrival is well into May with any of this species never seen before the last few days of April.

If you’re not familiar with some of the birds discussed here, then why not get a handbook which will allow you to identify them. Or, for children, perhaps an identification chart or a sticker book. You’ll find all of these products on this page


A female pied flycatcher arrived in my garden last week. Have never seen one before. I live close to the sea in south Devon and thought it was just resting after flying in from its journey from its wintering area. Contrary to my thinking that it would fly on to some forested area from here, which is an out of town built up area, it seems to have decided to stay and keeps appearing in the garden - its favourite place to sit - the birdbath. Hopefully there will be plenty of flies around now the weather is getting warmer.

Mrs Philippa Williams 22/04/2013 14:18:17

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The plight of swifts and what you can do to help

by Vine House Farm (Vine House Farm)

Posted on April 04, 2013

A swift soaring high in flight

The Swift is one of the most iconic birds of the British summer. Arriving relatively late as a migrant from Africa in the last week of April and the first week of May and leaving early to return back in August, the few months the swift is with us we’re often aware of their presence by the manic flights they make around buildings in our cities, town and villages, and their equally manic screaming calls.

Swifts are truly amazing birds for a whole lot of reasons: Firstly, from the time they leave their nests to fly back to Africa to the time they return the next spring, they wouldn’t have landed once.  In fact after young birds have fledged they stay in the air for a staggering three years until they breed for the first time. Swifts sleep on the wing, feed on the wing and even mate on the wing! They can do all of this because their wing loading is so low, meaning that their body size and weight is low relative to the size of their wings. So the same sort of science which keeps a glider up in the air without an engine as a normal aircraft has. Swifts are fantastic flyers and display all sorts of qualities, from soaring high into the sky with little wing movement, to outrageous acrobatics as they fly madly between buildings with small groups of their friends.

Although the Swift is not dissimilar to a Swallow or House Martin with its forked tail, in fact it is not related to either (swallows and martins are in the same family – Hirundinidae). This similarity is a result of ‘parallel evolution’ which basically means that Swifts have evolved similar physical characteristics to Swifts and Swallows, and this because both have the same requirement to catch flying insects on the wing.

But now the bad news… swifts are in serious decline and their numbers have fallen by an alarming 50% in the last decade or so, with this leaving around just 85,000 breeding pairs in the UK. So why the decline? Although all the reasons are yet to be understood, a major factor is a reduction in suitable nest sites – typically gaps under the eaves and other roof spaces in old buildings. But with so many old buildings demolished and with others renovated and the nesting spaces gone, Swifts are having a tough time.

Swift Nest BoxSo what can you do to help? Well putting up a special nest box – or two – like this one would give returning Swifts the perfect place to nest.

This special nest box has been designed specifically for Swifts and is made from sustainable sourced plywood and treated with a light oak preservative to ensure it lasts.

The ideal site for swift nest boxes is under the eaves or on walls facing north, northeast or northwest and out of direct sunlight – which is very important for all nest boxes to ensure the young birds don’t get too hot (which can kill them). Height should be at least 5 metres above the ground, with clear adjacent airspace so the swifts can access it in high-speed direct flight. And the best time to put up the nest boxes is before the swifts return – so aim to have them up by the third week of April at the latest.

So please do see if you can find space on the wall of your house or other building (perhaps the local school?) for one or two swift nest boxes, and here’s a final few facts to reinforce just what an amazing bird the swift is and why it deserves your help: They can fly up to 500 miles in a day, live on average for 7 years, with some birds even reaching 20 years or more. So just think, or work out, how many miles a 20 year old swift would fly in a lifetime!

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North Highland wildlife diary - March 2013

by Roger Hughes (Guest Blogger)

Posted on March 23, 2013

Young pied wagtail resting outside my office window

Our monthly columnist from the Scottish Highlands

A long-time associate of Vine House Farm is Roger Hughes, who now lives in the north of Scotland and the beautiful county of Sutherland. Roger helps us with a range of business services, but he’s also a keen bird watcher, is very knowledgeable about feeding birds, is a general nature lover, and also partly earns his living from writing. He lives with his wife, Julie, and they have a small croft with a wide mix of habitats from wooded riverbank to meadow and moorland – all good for wildlife of course. So with all this in mind, Roger now writes a monthly column for the Vine House Farm website which we very much hope you’ll follow and enjoy.

North Highland wildlife diary – March

Most of us have a sign or event in our mind which signifies the start of spring. For some it might be the first snowdrops to push through the cold soil in early February (though you’d be a month or two later for such an event up here!), but for others it might be mid-April and the first swallow to gracefully drift over their garden. For me though, it’s the return of some our non-migratory bird species which none the less leave our land over the winter months and head for relatively less hostile habitat such as nearby coastal estuaries. And the first of these arrived back on the 17th March – a pied wagtail feeding on insects close to one of my wife’s Shetland ponies. And just the next day an oystercatcher flew over our garden and made its presence obvious with its noisy and shrill whistling (this species of wader nests in the rough meadows on and around our croft).  However, since then and despite my initial excitement that spring had arrived, it’s been very cold, very windy with snow on the ground, and not a sight nor sound of either pied wagtail or oystercatcher! But anyway, I’ve now had my signs of spring so there’s no turning back now – whatever the weather brings.

The low temperatures we’ve had in the last week or so – most days barely more than two degrees in daylight hours and often minus five at night – has made me reminisce about the weather here this time last year, when we were positively basking in daytime temperatures of up to twenty degrees! The low temperatures have also meant things are behind on our land, with the grass barely showing any new growth and only radishes from my early sowing brave enough to germinate and poke above the soil line in the poly tunnel.

But the weather rarely stops me from getting out for a walk into the hills around us, so I’ve spent plenty of time of doing that of late. The upland areas are still relatively devoid of birds and will be until the migrants start to return in April, but there are still birds to see with a regular one being red grouse. Actually red grouse can be the cause of much stress to the bird watcher and hill walker, as they’ll sit motionless and very well camouflaged in the heather then explode from the ground into a noisy flight when you’re less than a metre away. The experience can be a real heart-stopper and especially if it’s the first sight or sound you’ve had of any living creature for an hour or more, and I often wonder if the effect on my health outweighs the benefits of the two hour walk!

With the cold and wintery weather still with us, our bird feeders have been seeing plenty of action with the chaffinch flock now up to around 200 birds! And like many species of song bird you can attract to your garden, if you give them a choice of food and that choice includes sunflower hearts, then it’s sunflower hearts they’ll go for – and right now in my garden that’s about 15kg of them per week! With so many chaffinches feeding and as they’re joined by smaller numbers of siskin, redpoll, greenfinch and goldfinch, just relying on hanging feeders simply isn’t an option so I spread a good quantity of the sunflower hearts on the ground. The advantage of doing this is that it largely frees up the feeders for coal tits, blue tits and great tits, all of which will take a sunflower heart from the feeder and fly to a branch where they’ll hold the seed in their feet and chip small pieces off to eat.

By this time next month one of my favourite birds will have returned from Africa and will hopefully be looking to again nest on our land – the wheatear. So look out for news on that, plus also news on the other returning migrants which will hopefully include osprey.



Robin mix. Best value for money I have found anywhere. Birds eat everything and nothing left on the ground. Most birds eat the food and not just Robins.

Mr Peter Napier 24/03/2013 13:06:16

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The farmland bird winter food gap

by Lucy Watts (Vine House Farm)

Posted on March 15, 2013

A recent visit by Environmental minister Richard Benyon to Hillesden farm in Buckinghamshire has highlighted the so called hunger gap for farmland birds between mid-winter and spring when naturally occurring seeds and fruits are in short supply for farmland birds such as Linnets, Chaffinches, Reed Buntings, Greenfinches and Skylarks.

For five years Hillesden farm has been the home of a detailed study funded by DEFRA and Natural England. The study has covered land management techniques including overwintered stubbles, un-harvested conservation headlands, flower strips and wild bird seed mixtures (covers) along with the additional feeding.

The study illustrated that birds surviving over the winter could be significantly increased by regular feeding on farms along with other measures. Hundreds more birds have been counted on the farms that have taken part in the study, the food for which has been supplied by Vine House Farm. The mixture has included wheat, white millet, canary seed, red millet and oilseed rape. The work on the farms has helped develop the new Environmental Stewardship options now available to farmers. There are now over 50 farmers signed up to the scheme.

Here at Vine House Farm Nicholas has been a long term advocate for winter feeding on the farm and has been doing so for more than 20 years and he believes it is an important element of the winter mix to help farmland birds. Here at Vine House Farm we are currently feeding over 500 birds in three different areas, many of which are Chaffinches and Tree Sparrows. The feeding complements the other conservation measures that Nicholas has worked hard to bring about on the farm.

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Beginners guide to attracting garden birds

by Vine House Farm (Vine House Farm)

Posted on March 12, 2013

Feeding garden birds is a great way of being able to get birds closer to you and your family by inviting them into your garden. Vine House Farm’s simple chart, below, helps people to identify birds in their garden and understand how different species prefer different types of food fed in different ways. It’s a great way for someone just starting out in feeding to understand a little about their visitors and their preferences. For more detailed information please visit our how to feed page.

Infographic on attracting common garden birds

To embed our infographic on your website please copy and paste the code below.

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North Highland Wildlife Diary February

by Roger Hughes (Guest Blogger)

Posted on February 24, 2013

Redpoll feeding on dropped niger seed

Our monthly columnist from the Scottish Highlands

A long-time associate of Vine House Farm is Roger Hughes, who now lives in the north of Scotland and the beautiful county of Sutherland. Roger helps us with a range of business services, but he’s also a keen bird watcher, is very knowledgeable about feeding birds, is a general nature lover, and also partly earns his living from writing. He lives with his wife, Julie, and they have a small croft with a wide mix of habitats from wooded riverbank to meadow and moorland – all good for wildlife of course. So with all this in mind, Roger now writes a monthly column for the Vine House Farm website which we very much hope you’ll follow and enjoy.


North Highland wildlife diary – February 

In last month’s column I promised I’ll tell you more about the birds of prey that we have in our corner of the Scottish Highlands, so I’ll be coming back to that in a bit. Ahead of that though, a brief summary of what’s been happening on and around our croft in the last month or so.

Well the weather has been relatively kind, and other than some high winds early on in February – and we’re used to those! – there’s little to report. As for wildlife, I’ve been seeing a few roe and red deer come down from the hills to feed close by and that’s always a welcome sight on a grey and damp day here in East Sutherland. I’ve also regularly been scouring our quarter of a mile of river bank – the River Fleet – for a view of an otter but it’s been many months since I’ve seen one. So no otters to be seen on the river just now, but spending time looking for them always reveals something else and I’ve had some great views of solitary goosanders hunting for small fish. But goosanders are a shy bird – and probably rightly so as they’ve been persecuted in the past on game fish rivers such as ours – and they’re soon into flight when they catch a glimpse of me approaching.

On the bird feeding station there’s been the usual high numbers of chaffinches (we normally have 100 plus throughout the winter months), coal tits and siskins – the three most numerous species of birds we have on the feeders. But joining the siskins we also have redpolls, though they often feed on the niger seed on the ground which the siskins drop. One tip I often give people about feeding niger seed is to do so from the largest feeder possible, or use a number of smaller feeders. The main reason for this is that, because of the tiny physical size of the seed, siskins, and indeed goldfinches, often spend much longer sat on the perches than, say, a greenfinch will if feeding on black sunflower seed. So in other words the tiny seed means it takes longer to shuck and get the same volume of food than it would a sunflower seed, and that being the case the competition for perch positions is greater. My favourite feeder for the job is the Droll Yankee 20 port feeder which you can see here and note the price – it’s not even double what a 4 port feeder is! So great value for money, and the sight of all those perches being taken with goldfinches, siskins and the odd redpoll really is something very special indeed.

So, onto the birds of prey we have living in the area. The first one to mention is the buzzard, though I doubt its presence will surprise anyone now as it’s the most common bird of prey in the UK and you can see them pretty much anywhere – even the relatively treeless and flat fens around Vine House Farm. But if I’d been writing this column even 10 years ago, that wouldn’t have been the case; such has been the rapid increase in buzzard numbers. Buzzard numbers are reasonably good here, but not actually at the levels I would expect and I suspect illegal persecution is the main reason for that – but I’ll come back to that point in a bit.

Next up for mention is the sparrowhawk, and this species does seem to have very healthy numbers, and certainly I see them pretty much daily – both male and female – as they make manic flight paths towards the feeding station at the bottom of the garden. And their main prey here? I would say chaffinches. There are kestrels around, but actually rather few and to a point which surprises me because a) the habitat is reasonably good for them, and b) they shouldn’t suffer from illegal persecution in the way other species of raptor do.

And illegal persecution brings me onto the next species, which is the hen harrier. They are apparently present in our area but in the three and half years I’ve lived here I’ve yet to see one. Much of the habitat on the hills around us is perfect for them, but I think it will take many more generations of landowners and the gamekeepers they employ before we see this beautiful bird in the numbers they should be. (For the record, I know our very local gamekeeper quite well and I fully believe he abides by the law.)

On a more positive note, a real success story in our area is the osprey, and I know of at least two nests which are used each year within around 10 miles of our home. And I occasionally see them in the summer months passing close to our land, as they hunt on both the River Fleet and the lochs in the hills above us. I’ve also had two sightings of red kite in the last 18 months and these will be from the introduced population on the Black Isle some 40 miles south of us - I hope they're spreading out for the long term!

And golden eagles? Well the habitat in our immediate area isn’t really right for them – more rocky hills that mountains – but, by an astonishing coincidence, I did see one fly write over our house, and relatively low to the ground, about 6 weeks back and just as I was finishing off my January column for Vine House Farm!

Well in the month ahead I expect to see huge skeins of geese flying over as they head north west to both Iceland and Greenland, so look out for news on that and other wildlife from the Northern Highlands.  

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National Nest Box Week

by Lucy Watts (Vine House Farm)

Posted on February 15, 2013

According to Shakespeare the 14th February is when birds traditionally start to pair up for the breeding season.

The BTO launched National Nest Box week in 1997 and it runs from 14th February every year, encouraging people to put up nest boxes in their gardens and local areas. National Nest Box week gives everyone the chance to contribute to conservation efforts in the UK. For more information visit the BTO National Nest Box Week website.

Here at VHF we believe National Nest Box week is a great way to encourage people to do their bit for wildlife, by simply putting up a nest box or two!  As a human race we have changed our natural environment to the detriment of other species. Intentionally or unintentionally we have destroyed so much habitat we should be ashamed of ourselves as a race! Whether it is tidying our gardens and removing a favourite bush or improving the facia and guttering around the house these unintentional activities can seriously reduce nest sites.

Here at VHF we obviously have a big garden to play with and in the last 24 months we have erected over 40 Sparrow boxes for our Tree Sparrow colonies. Nicholas monitors their nests each summer and believes we have had about an 85% occupancy rate. It has been great for me when travelling down the farm to see our Tree Sparrow colony each year, by a number of simple factors. Habitat, feeding and nesting sites.

Our website has a great information page on nest boxes if like many people you are unsure of where to place a nest box. I put up two boxes in my garden last year, with one being occupied. There is still plenty of time for nest boxes to go up, it doesn’t have to be this week for them to be successful.

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Renewable Energy at Vine House Farm

by Nicholas Watts (Vine House Farm)

Posted on February 14, 2013

VIne House Farm Wind Turbines with red sky

I have always liked to use what I had on the farm rather than go and buy something so when I heard about straw burners to heat houses in the late seventies I thought that sounded like a good idea, as a farmer in South Lincolnshire I was burning my straw in the field because I had no use for it.

I invested in one and soon found that Linseed straw burnt better than wheat straw but wood burnt better and lasted longer than either wheat or linseed straw. At that time I was solely concerned about the cost but I believe soon after I had invested in the straw burner we had some sort of fuel scare and I realised that my straw burner was not just a cost saver, we were told that oil was not going to last for ever. In the 1990s I wasn’t saving any money at all as oil was so cheap, it was a labour of love, it would have been cheaper to heat my house by oil but my oil burner had been taken out and sent for scrap. About 1997 I replaced my original straw burner with a larger one to heat my office, a granny flat and my museum of agricultural hand tools.

It was around 1998 when a number of farmers in Deeping Fen were approached by Wind Prospect telling us that our farms were suitable for a wind farm. I replied by return of post saying that I was interested as I was interested in producing some renewable energy. Another farmer replied after 3 months and it was decided to have a joint wind farm of eight turbines.

Installing a wind farm is not a quick job, first of all Wind Prospect had to record the wind for two years to see if there was enough wind to make a wind farm viable and then there is of course public consultation and planning. The planning application was rejected so Wind Prospect went to an appeal and that appeal was won. Construction was started and the turbines started to turn in May 2006 and the 8 two megawatt turbines have been turning ever since.

In 2003 I erected a 40 ft x 100 ft building to mix and pack bird seed, it was next to  my  refrigerated potato store and the waste heat from the refrigeration plant was wafting towards this new building, so I moved the radiator and fans of this plant into the new building and this waste heat then and still does heat this building. I was heating a building for nothing!

My bird seed business continued to expand, I needed another building so I erected a 100 ft x 120 ft building, it was bigger than what I needed but I had bought this building a few years earlier for £8000 when it was being taken down in the village.

Having erected the building it needed heating as men were going to be working in it all through the winter. I looked around for a renewable way and I came up with using waste oil in a purpose made heater and so now I don’t have to think of who I am going to pay to take the waste oil from our tractors away, we use it as heating oil.

Solar voltaic panels came along in 2011 as far as I was concerned. As I had three farms with south facing roofs I was able to install 150 kw of panels and since then the price of panels has come down so much I have installed another 50 kw.

In 2012 I replaced my second bio-mass boiler with a third one that now heats my farm shop and new offices and I now am getting paid by government on the Renewable Heat Incentive for burning waste.

In late 2012 two 100 kw wind turbines were erected, these had taken over two years to come to fruition and they were erected at the end of November in a very wet period, the 100 ton crane erecting them managed to get stuck but the end result was good and they are now making lots of electric. The electric goes into the farm buildings where there are potato stores and grain stores using electric most of the year, any surplus is exported into the grid.         

I estimate that if I had not had my bio-mass boiler I would have used 200,000 litres of heating oil since 1980 and each 2 mega watt wind turbine that I have on the farm creates the same amount of energy in a year that is used by 1000 homes. My solar panels, my waste oil burner and the waste heat from my potato store are all saving fossil fuels. I believe that the price of energy will continue to increase and oil will not last forever and so we should use renewable energy instead of oil whenever we can.

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Gardening with wildlife in mind

by Nicholas Watts (Vine House Farm)

Posted on February 10, 2013

Fieldfare in Hawthorn Berry Bush

Birds like to use our gardens for additional feeding throughout the year – but it is when food is at its most scarce that they will use our gardens most.

Wild creatures’ basic needs are the same as our own: food, water and shelter – which is why providing a range of food sources and vital protection from the elements is likely to attract more species into your garden.

Therefore, ensuring your garden has been cultivated with wildlife in mind can be the difference between life and death for some animals.

Firstly, by providing a generous helping of ground mix, you will entice Blackbirds, House Sparrows, Robins and Starlings, while live mealworms and waxworms will be snapped up enthusiastically, and  are highly beneficial to those species rearing their young.

Additionally, it is not only the selection of food that matters – the types of bird feeders and wooden bird tables you choose for your garden also play an important role in attracting different species.

Hanging seed feeders are perfect for all seeds and mixes and are likely to draw finches, tits and sparrows. Niger seed feeders, on the other hand, are ideal if you would like to spot the eye-catching Goldfinch.

Of course, given that many garden birds are vulnerable to attacks from predators, we recommend placing feeders near to thick shrubs and trees so birds can escape quickly if they feel threatened.

Not only that, but shrubs can also offer food, shelter and natural nesting sites – and this is essential in maintaining the presence of wildlife in your garden. Hawthorn and blackthorn are ideal for these purposes as their fruits offer sustenance to birds and their flowers are important for nectar-feeding insects.

However, as most gardeners are well aware, the plants in your garden are at risk from greenflies and blackflies – but creating a habitat that attracts birds such as the Blue Tit will naturally help reduce aphid numbers.

Last, but by no means least, it is crucial your garden provides a few water sources for wildlife if you are to succeed in tempting them in. Ponds and barrels can do a job, but ornate bird baths look great and provide an ideal environment in which birds can drink and bathe happily. 

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Lapwings in abundance at Vine House Farm

by Nicholas Watts (Vine House Farm)

Posted on February 07, 2013

Lapwing on ploughed field at Vine House Farm

We started ploughing some land yesterday and by the end of the day there were about 500 Lapwings on the ploughing picking up grubs and worms.

Where did they all come from?

Aren’t they clever at finding food. Well of course they spend at least half of their life looking for food and if they cannot find food they will die. Flying around at 100 or 200 feet up you get a wonderful view and see so much more and when the plough is turning around at the ends of the field those shiny breasts show up well.

The land that we are ploughing is coming sugar beet. When we cultivate we expose food and so those farmers who sow all their crops in the autumn do not give birds so many opportunities to find food. 60 years ago every farm would have some spring cropping and there was more food around in all directions. We are gradually starving many of our birds, mostly of insects. Insects are of course the basis of life and without them the world would be a different place. For those of you who saw the last episode of Africa last night, David Attenborough was talking about that very same thing. He was saying that to get all the big game back into a nature reserve in Mozambique they would have to get the insects there first.

Lapwings searching for worms on ploughed field

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North Highland wildlife diary January

by Roger Hughes (Guest Blogger)

Posted on January 31, 2013

Chaffinch and Siskin in North Scotland

Introducing our new monthly columnist

A long-time associate of Vine House Farm is Roger Hughes, who now lives in the north of Scotland and the beautiful county of Sutherland. Roger helps us with a range of business services, but he?s also a keen bird watcher, is very knowledgeable about feeding birds, is a general nature lover, and also partly earns his living from writing. He lives with his wife, Julie, and they have a small croft with a wide mix of habitats from wooded riverbank to meadow and moorland ? all good for wildlife of course. So with all this in mind, we've invited Roger to write a monthly column for the Vine House Farm website which we very much hope you?ll follow and enjoy. 

North Highland wildlife diary – January 

I’m not sure we ever get an uneventful month on our croft in terms of weather, wildlife and other goings-on, but even by our standards December seemed to be pretty exceptional.

Starting with the weather, the north east coast of Scotland saw its most ferocious storm for more than 100 years, and our local seaside village of Golspie – which is just 10 miles away from our home in Rogart – suffered extensive damage to its sea defences. Being about 6 miles inland from the coast we did of course escape the effects of the sea, but still experienced the very high winds. Thankfully our property didn’t suffer any damage, but the storm did bring in an unexpected visitor to our garden: an exhausted cormorant. At first it was job to work out what the black domed-shape figure was sat at the bottom of the garden and close to the banks of the swollen River Fleet (which we have the pleasure of having flow through our land), but on closer inspection I could see it was a cormorant with its head tucked under its wing. As I tentatively walked towards it I inadvertently startled the bird which quickly dived into the river, only to emerge 25 metres or so downstream, took up position again on the bank and promptly went back to sleep.

Stoat But the real action has been provided by stoats, which, having exhausted the supply of rabbits in the meadow we keep our Shetland ponies in, decided that our three Marans chickens (a beautiful French breed with black plumage) were an easy target for an early Christmas dinner. So having twice scared off one of the stoats who was hanging onto the back of one of the chickens in an attempt to get at its throat, I decided a humane trap was in order and set it for that night and baited with some Brussels pate (as you do…). Well the stoat clearly had a liking for this continental delicacy, as just a few hours later he, or she, was in the cage and was none too happy about being so. In fact so grumpy about it, that as well as trying to get its teeth into my fingers as I lifted the cage from the ground and for the start of a long walk before setting it free, it excreted its shockingly smelly defence odour from its anal glands which, now I’ve researched the behaviour, contains ‘several sulphuric compounds’. It is NOT a nice smell!

But anyway, first stoat now with a new home more than a mile away from ours, and just one more to catch – which I achieved just a few days later with a bait of minced beef. However, this little chap had eaten all the beef in the trap and was actually fast asleep when I found it. So another long walk in the snow – which we had a deep covering of in mid-December – and the second stoat safely released without harm and this time with the courtesy of not treating me to the awful smell . And here is the second one before release and having just woken-up – note empty tray which was previously full of minced beef! 

But enough about stoats, and let me tell you about the birds we’ve had on our feeders in the last month or so. The first thing I should say is that I set up a fairly serious bird feeding operation from October to April (what happens between April and October I’ll tell you about when we get there) and have feeders for sunflower hearts, niger, peanuts, suet pellets, suet balls and suet blocks. 

The most numerous species of bird we attract to the feeders is the chaffinch, closely followed by coal tit and siskin. But during December, and in a prolonged cold spell which saw daytime temperatures at or below freezing for a week or more and with a good covering of snow on the ground, the numbers of chaffinch reached almost plague proportions with a hundred or more trying to get onto the feeders. And here’s an interesting thing about chaffinches on tube feeders compared to greenfinches and goldfinches: they don’t find it that easy to use the standard straight perches, with constant wing flapping needed for them to keep their balance – which of course wastes valuable energy for them. But it’s a completely different story 

Ring Pull Perch Rings

with circular perches, as you can see in the photo above with a male Chaffinch and male Siskin very comfortably feeding on an Onyx Seed Feeder which I’ve been testing out for Vine House Farm.

So my recommendation is to switch to feeders with this type of perch, or if you have a Droll Yankee or Bird Lovers feeder with straight perches add these Droll Yankee Perch Rings which Vine House Farm also sell.

As I type, I can see three buzzards circling above the forest behind our house, and with a recent view of a golden eagle over our land – rare in our part of East Sutherland – I’m planning to tell you more about the raptors we have locally in next month’s column. 

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Nice weather for ducks

by Nicholas Watts (Vine House Farm)

Posted on January 30, 2013

Gadwell and Mallard on the Welland

The surface feeding ducks have found the wet weather a bit of a bonus. The floods have floated seeds which had fallen amongst the grasses out of sight, these seeds are now floating down the rivers with drowned insects which the surface feeding ducks and waders are making the most of. By surface feeding ducks I mean Mallard and Gadwall which I have pictured here but also include Wigeon,Teal, Shoveler and Pintail. The diving ducks have not enjoyed the floods as the water is too murky to catch anything so they have had to leave our rivers and go to somewhere the water is not muddy such as the gravel pits in the Deepings area. By diving ducks I am including the Great Crested Grebes, the Goosanders and Tufted Ducks, all species that were on the Welland on Sunday. We did not have any rain on Sunday but it takes two days for the water that falls in Leicestershire to get to us in Deeping Fen, so Saturdays rain was with us on Monday and Tuesday.

Some people may think we are getting more extremes of weather than we used to have but that is not so according to weather records. The problem is that our rivers are getting shallower because they are never cleaned out, silt keeps coming off the agricultural land into our rivers which in many cases have been straightened out to help the water flow quicker and cause flooding in the valleys. We have more concrete and tarmac about us which the water doesn’t soak into, it just runs off helping to make floods.

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Bird count at Vine House Farm

by Nicholas Watts (Vine House Farm)

Posted on January 28, 2013

Linnets at Vine House Farm

Every year here at Vine House Farm we sow wild bird cover as part of the Countryside stewardship scheme. It consists of several different seeds but there are two plants that I have sown that retain their seeds well and they are kale and fodder radish. This year during the cold weather in January I went round most of the plots of wild bird cover and counted all the birds that I saw. Of the fifteen wild bird covers, I counted a number of species on eleven of them, one did not have any birds on when I visited and there were three that I did not visit. Total counts were:

2050 Linnets
610 Chaffinches
330 Reed Buntings
335 Skylarks
150 Greenfinches
130 Goldfinches
120 Bramblings
50 Yellowhammers
70 Stock Doves
1100 Wood Pigeons

Linnets were feeding exclusively on the kale and fodder radish seeds.
Chaffinches were feeing on the fodder radish seeds and at 3 places feeding on additional food I was supplying daily.
Reed Buntings were feeding on bird food I was supplying daily.
Greenfinches were feeding on kale, fodder radish and bird food I was supplying
Goldfinches were feeding on burdocks that I grow in the field margins.
The Skylarks were feeding on the green leaves of the kale and rape.
Yellowhammers and Corn Buntings were feeding on food that I was supplying daily.
A few Bramblings were feeding on fodder radish but mainly on food that I was supplying daily.
Stock Doves were feeding on the kale, fodder radish and rape leaves in the wild bird covers.
Wood Pigeons were mainly feeding on the green leaves but some were also feeding on food that I was supplying daily.


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Tips for feeding birds in winter

by Nicholas Watts (Vine House Farm)

Posted on January 03, 2013

Compared to previous years, last summer’s poor weather resulted in depleted fruit harvests throughout the country – and that means birds’ natural food sources suffer. 

Consequently, many birds are making their way in to gardens earlier than normal in the search for food, with the number of birds appearing in gardens typically doubling once the colder weather hits. 

Unfortunately, many small ground feeding birds such as Blackbirds, Robins and Thrushes that are unable to get on to feeders may perish once the cold weather sets in and the ground is draped with snow.  

And, although there have been some fears about feeding garden birds (critics argue it maintains the population artificially), the RSPB and the British Trust for Ornithology advocate keeping out bird food all year round.

With this in mind, read on for Vine House Farm’s top tips for feeding birds this winter:

1. A little goes a long way 

Although it is always tempting to put out a a lot of food for the birds, too much food leads to the risk of it going mouldy or being contaminated. Your best bet is to provide small amounts and change it regularly. Additionally, with live food such as insects, , worms and larvae decreasing in numbers over the last 30 years, a supply of live mealworms in your garden will be of huge benefit to wild birds, regardless of the season, but especially during the breeding season.

2. Beware of the big freeze

When the ground is covered with snow, Blackbirds, Robins and Song Thrushes will adore the VHF Ground Mix. It is packed with sultanas, rolled oats and sunflower heart chips - ideal for ground feeding birds. Also, with bird baths likely to freeze over as temperatures plummet, many birds can perish due to dehydration. Therefore, putting out fresh water every day can be a real life saver. 

3. Use foods high in fat

A high protein diet containing plenty of calories can be vital for some birds to make it through the colder months. Foods high in fat or oil content provide enough fuel to see them through the winter. Nutritious winter foods such as sunflower seeds and super suet balls are ideal – and they may help you attract species such as woodpeckers, tits and Starlings. 

4. Safeguard the bird food

Food can be scarce for many animals over the winter, so it is a good idea to safeguard the food you are providing for the birds. Specialised feeders will protect against large birds or squirrels stealing the food. Also, garden birds are likely to fear attacks from predators so it is advisable to place feeders close to trees and thick shrubs, allowing the birds to escape quickly if threatened. This approach gives smaller birds the security they need to return to your garden. 

5. Keep it clean 

Your bird feeders require cleaning and sterilising on a regular basis. Keeping mould and mildew to a minimum means diseases are less likely to thrive – and this means a reduced risk to the health of the birds. Remove old seeds from your feeder and, if possible, provide more than one feeder to give the birds a bit of variety and plenty of space. Additionally, if you have a birdbath, it is advisable to empty it every day, wipe it clean and refill with fresh water. 


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