Kerrie is a Devon-based artist and writer who likes to dabble in a variety of crafts. Before becoming self-employed she was an ecologist and prior to that she worked as an environmental educator with the Dorset Wildlife Trust. She contributed to the BTO’s Red Sixty Seven book and has written for Penguin, discussing the loss of biodiversity in the UK over the past 70 years. When not at her desk she can be found outside, admiring the natural world and foraging wild foods.
A long time ago, October 2017, she won a little competition on this blog to write a review of George Monbiot’s Feral – click here.
The sky is the colour of a Wood Pigeon’s back.
The air fizzes with mizzle.
After breakfast, I drop my car to our local garage to be fixed, then run the lanes back home.
The route I’m taking winds out of Chard along a housing development littered with bottles and crisp packets until it eventually reaches a muddy field of fodder crops and dog shit. At the edge of the field, a quiet lane leads south. Up here, the view is bleak; field after field of lurid green grass surrounded by ratty hedgerows, the only sound the squelch, squelch, squelch of my feet as they drop into the thick mud topping which smothers the tarmac.
But eventually, thankfully, I come to a section where steeper hills rush in. Running through their centre, just below the lane, is a fast and chatty stream surrounded by woodland. Bird song fills the air: Goldcrest, Song Thrush, Robin, Wood Pigeon – even a Raven croaks from above. I slow a little. Listen. Breathe.
It’s then that I hear another sound, fuzzing like television static. I stop, scan the fields to my left and realise, slowly, that the noise is coming from an enormous flock of birds. There are so many of them perched on telephone wires above the field that it looks as if the wires are sagging from their combined weight, and the surrounding trees are festooned with warbling baubles.
An outlier flock passes over my head and I see the birds are predominately Linnets. Linnets are not a common sight round our house in East Devon. One or two might occasionally fly over our garden, and once one did briefly land to pick at seeds outside the lounge. But even out in the surrounding farmland it’s rare to see more than a handful of these tinkling birds, so it is no exaggeration to say I have never seen a flock this large. There must be thousands of them.
They shift, the rush of their united wings sounding like a sharp gust of wind through washing on a line. Some alight in the trees above me. And then, as if instructed by some hidden conductor, on cue, they all start to sing. And I, caught up in this little miracle, begin to cry. Because I know this is a remnant of something so much greater. That flocks bigger than this would have been a regular sight a hundred years ago, and that this sound they’re emitting; this bright, fizzing, twittering, whistling euphony would have filled the fields each winter as they travelled together in vast flocks, joined by other finches, their combined soundscape louder still.
A car passes, and although it lifts the birds, it does not break their spell. Gathering together, they begin to swirl and twist above the field like Starlings over the marshes. And I can see now why they’ve come here, why so many have joined in this one place above all others. The field has been left. It is the only place for miles around that has not been recently grazed, ploughed or cut. Instead, it is full of some kind of Radish – a cover crop, presumably – smothered in seed heads, which rise and fall like waves on a sandy sea. It is the sort of landscape that most people in the UK seem obsessed with removing; the ‘messy’ leftovers from summer’s growth. Yet it is a lifeline, a place where rodents can hide and owls can hunt, and a place where red-listed finches can find winter food. Linnets only eat seeds, and as Mark Avery said in Red Sixty Seven, it’s sobering to pretend you’re a seed eater in the English countryside and imagine where you’ll find your next meal. Round here, where dairy farming predominates, it’s a sad truth that many farmers do not leave plant-rich margins in their fields, preferring (or forced) to cultivate every last foot of space, and many also use herbicides to eradicate ‘weeds’, turning their fields a sickly yellow. But these weeds are a godsend for seed eaters like Linnets, who rely on plants such as Dandelion, Dock, Knotgrass, Thistle and Chickweed to survive. And as ever more land is replaced by monocultures and silage crops, some cut every few months throughout the spring and summer, where exactly do we expect these birds to go to find food?
It wouldn’t take much to help them, but our aversion to weeds, long grass and summer’s leftovers runs deep. Collectively, we still seem to be behaving under the assumption that short, green grass is good, and everything else is somehow untidy or unkept. It’s the same with hedge cutting. Locally, the first farmer to cut their hedges triggers a domino effect as the rest rush to keep up. Nobody wants to be seen as the ‘lazy’ one, the one with the ‘untidy’ farm. There’s shame there, and instinctively it is shunned. But at what cost? Farmland bird populations in the UK are in free fall. People like to attribute this to any number of things, but there is one thing that cannot be disputed – the declines began with the intensification of farming in the 1950s. That was the pivot point. As we ramped up production, wildlife diminished. But, instead of trying our hardest to reverse this, business as usual prevails. And the positive messages given to us by the likes of the NFU, who champion British farming even as more and more precious species are added to the endangered list, have been so insidious, so cleverly woven into the status quo, that few people even think to question them.
When it comes to farming, I think greenwashing hides a substantial amount of dirty laundry. Sometimes, it even tricks me. But when I pay attention, and look at where wildlife congregates, it’s clear to see which habitats matter the most. And it’s not those places which are repeatedly ploughed, sprayed or cut. And although I understand the important conservation roll grazing animals have in some situations, by and large, diversity does not congregate where livestock is closely penned, either, especially not in a growing landscape of monocultures designed specifically to feed one type of food to one type of farm animal. Wildlife likes variety. It likes a beautiful mess. It does not need straight edges and it does not need lies. It needs us to pay attention and to tell the truth. To admit that our fixation on ordering our surroundings and constant drive to increase production is having a devastating effect on the living world. The NFU would have us believe that 65% of the UK is only good for livestock farming and so that’s all it can ever be used for. But that’s such a blinkered view – one which also conveniently sidesteps the fact that livestock farming is only profitable because of subsidies and the monstrous amount of food waste we produce every year. There used to be around 250,000 acres of orchards in the UK a hundred years ago. Where does the NFU think they used to grow?
The next day, I went back to the field of Linnets. I took a camera, but had no hope of getting the entire flock in one frame. I watched them as they fed, moving in rolling waves across the crop. A Sparrowhawk dived into them, but was so overwhelmed by their numbers that it landed on the grass instead, looking slightly bewildered. Tucked behind a hedgerow, sat on a fallen Oak, I overhead a little boy walking on the lane behind me call out to his parents: “Look! Look up at the trees, that’s not leaves, that’s birds! Wow, just look at them. There are so many!”
I smiled, knowing that I wasn’t alone in my wonderment.
Seeing those Linnets felt like I’d slipped though a wormhole and gone back to the beginning of the 20th century. How many birds there would have been then, before intensification took hold. So many wings. So many songs. And how quiet it is now in comparison. I don’t want to live in a world without Linnets. I don’t want to live in a world where nature is squeezed out of existence by our greed. There are other ways to eat and there are other ways to farm. We don’t have to lose our wildlife. We just have to step back a little. Leave the seeds, leave the weeds and, although some of us struggle with the idea of relinquishing control, in many cases, we should just leave it be.
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wilderness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wilderness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
Gerald Manley Hopkins[registration_form]
6 Replies to “Guest blog – Linnets by Kerrie Gardner”
If I may comment first – this is a lovely blog and flocks of seedeaters like this one would have been commonplace – or at least regular – only 50 years ago. The last big Linnet flock I saw was over a decade ago https://markavery.info/2012/02/12/biggest-flock-linnets-northants/ in February 2012, in very cold weather, when my heating was on the blink. It’s a bit nippy now – and my heating is on the blink again.
Yep, farming is the problem, and yep, the NFU is not the solution (far, far, from it).
NFU doesn’t only translate to National Farmers Union. It has other, less prosaic, interpretations.
Thanks for this very well written blog Kerrie. It is no exaggeration to say that that cover crop could have saved the lives of hundreds of birds during the ‘hungry gap’ period – Feb to the end of March when very little other food is available.
With the increase in regenerative farming methods more farmers are sowing ground cover crops (green manures) in the Autumn. Unfortunately many of these are ploughed in before they have a chance to seed. If at least part of these fields were left to seed and over winter it would be a boon for seed eaters in the hungry gap period. As an aside, they also provide abundant nectar for insects in late Summer – Autumn.
Superb writing, thank you.
Last year I saw the biggest flocks of linnets I could ever remember seeing. There were probably 100+. This spring we had over 200 twittering in the trees around the cottage. They seem to be coming back here, though I’m not sure why. Whitethroats, too, are doing well down our lane, now the brambles are establishing thick cover for them to nest in. I felt myself tearing up as I read about thousands of linnets in this blog post. That I’ve never seen, in my almost 60 years on this planet. Maybe one day.
A very beautiful, poignant piece and I heartily agree about farming and the NFU