January started off very wet with rain on most days until the 14th, when the tap was turned off. We’ve only had a drop or two since, making our January total 35mm or 1.4ins, our average for the month being 44mm. I presume far different to those of you in the west. Despite the cold snap of frosts on eight consecutive mornings, the lowest temperature was -8°C here, the average temperature for the month was 4.8°C, which was above the 50 year average of 3.7°C. It was also a fairly quiet month as far as winds were concerned.
Last month I spoke about the resident Greylag Geese that we have in Baston Fen. There were 500 or even 1,000 eating the sugar beet in the field before it was harvested. They were making quite a mess and when we frightened them off, they just flopped on to the next field and were soon back. Parking a tractor in the field worked wonders; they disappeared over the river Glen into Bourne South Fen for the next three weeks. In the meantime, there was a full moon and the middle of one field of wheat, not far from where the geese roost on an old gravel pit, turned brown. The Greylag Geese had been flighting on to this field on the moonlit nights and eating the wheat plants down to ground level, the rascals! I can’t see the goose saga going away, they are here to stay with numbers building up year on year.
Maybe I am complaining too much. I was watching about 3,000 Pink Footed Geese feeding in a crop of sugar beet near Brancaster on the Norfolk coast on a Sunday morning. 3,000 could easily have been 10,000 as there are more than 50,000 of them along the North Norfolk coast. The world wide population of Pink Footed Geese in 1950 was only 50,000 but today there are 500,000 and they all winter in the UK and the Netherlands.
Goslings grow up on short grass and so the grey goose situation is a success. It is those birds whose youngsters need insects to grow up on, that are in trouble – such as Mallard and our farmland birds.
Due to the drought in the summer quite a few potato growers have poor crops, but there are still ample supplies for the supermarkets. We are eating less fresh potatoes, meaning there are so many potatoes on sale. If we eat 10% less potatoes and 10% more vegetables each year, that adds up to a surplus of potatoes. It is the fourth year in a row when there’s been a surplus, and growers like us, are reducing their acreage and some growers are giving up growing them entirely. We are looking forward to better sales next year.
The government has recently announced new schemes to motivate farmers to manage and restore habitat and therefore protect wildlife, which I find encouraging. Over the last eight or 10 years they have been most unhelpful to those of us in Countryside Stewardship and many farmers have gone out of schemes that were helping wildlife – no wonder our wildlife is declining.
Lapwings on the farm disappeared during the cold spell and have not returned yet, but we have been treated to a flock of Whooper Swans. They have been feeding on one of our rape fields but they moved on to a recently harvested field of sugar beet. They’re not keen on human contact and if any vehicle gets within 300 yards of them, they start walking away from it.
I go round the farm feeding the birds each morning, covering a distance of 5 miles, some of it on public roads. Sometimes I may see up to seven Kestrels and five Buzzards – more Kestrels than previous years. The main food of the Kestrels will be voles. I only see Barn Owls flying after wet or windy nights so I am presuming we still have plenty of voles around.
Birds have been steadily increasing since Christmas at our feeding area in the Vine House Farm garden. This is partly because of the cold weather we’ve had and partly because last years harvest has been eaten up. Those bits that haven’t been eaten are getting passed their ‘eat-by’ date.
We are now approaching the most interesting time in the year for feeding birds. Birds such as Reed Buntings and Yellowhammers don’t normally come to feeders before Christmas but I now have Reed Buntings feeding since the cold snap.
Our birds do need feeding as they are declining. I’m not feeding as many birds on the farm, as I was last winter, possibly due to the drought we had last summer. When our countryside dries up, the insects also dry up and maybe the birds didn’t get that last brood in that they usually would. Our Tree Sparrows finished breeding more than two weeks earlier than normal in 2022.
As I visit 60 or 70 Tree Sparrow nests every week from April 20th until early September I get a fairly good idea of what is happening to the insects in our countryside, as Tree Sparrows feed their nestlings totally on insects. In 2021, it was a very cold spring, insects were late appearing and 80% of the first broods of Tree Sparrows failed but they made up for it later on, as it was a fairly wet summer.
The birds are of course battling with a decline in our insect population. 50 years ago there were plenty of Tree Sparrows breeding locally and no one was feeding them. I feed the Tree Sparrows throughout the year and without that food they would not be breeding on our farm. Modern farming must take a lot of the blame for the lack of insects and lack of seeds in the countryside. More about that in next months newsletter…
This decline of insects has affected our farmland birds more than our woodland birds, mainly because we don’t apply sprays in our woods. However even the Tit family, who normally live in woodland, need our help and if you really want to help our wild birds, you should feed them live mealworms. RSPB studies have shown that if you feed live mealworms in April, May and June you will rear 50 % more birds in your garden and if we want to see a lot of birds we need to breed a lot of birds. Dried mealworms are dry, birds cannot take their young water so the water has to be included in the food and that moist food is insects and mealworms of course are insects.