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The Lee Newsletter
September 2006

Don’t blame us for songbirds’ flight

Ruttles farm By Chris Ruttle
I was very interested to read Giles Knowles’s article in a recent Newsletter about the lack of birds, defending us farmers and the sprays we use. Modern farming methods and predatory birds have long been blamed for decimating songbird populations. In fact grey squirrels and feral cats, together with the predatory sparrow hawk, are responsible for the loss of 85 per cent of adult songbirds, according to the charity Songbird Survival. They carried out a study on more than 100 farms in the UK which assessed the effects of 10 common mammals on the populations of 15 farmland bird species. Rats and stoats were also found to be responsible for the decreasing songbird population, with stoats wiping out local populations of skylarks.

Some of the statistics they quote are most alarming: for example, Britain’s population of 10 million cats is said by the Cat Protection League to be responsible for killing 55 million songbirds each year, an average of 5.5 per cat. Suggested ways of reducing this terrible mortality rate include all of the measures suggested by Mrs Stewart-Liberty in June’s Newsletter. Yet, by comparison, and calculating from the predation rates quoted by Dr Ian Newton in his book The Sparrow Hawk, the UK’s population of 100,000 sparrow hawks will slaughter in excess of 100 million songbirds during the same period – an average of 1000 ‘kills’ per sparrow hawk.

The grey squirrel has a dramatic effect on the bird population not only by eating the eggs and young chicks but also by passing on a virus (Parapox) that kills our native reds. Most experts give the red only another 10-15 years before it is completely wiped out from this island. At last there is talk from the Government about controlling them, and why not: I can remember when there was a bounty on them, with the tails produced as evidence. I think the problem is too many people see them as nice fluffy things, and like to watch their antics in their gardens, without thinking about the damage they do.

Magpies are of course another great destroyer of eggs and young birds. I am sure many of us have seen a pair of them working a hedge and wreaking havoc as they go. We all know it happens, but why does the RSPB not come out and say so? In the old days magpies were treated as vermin by gamekeepers who kept them under control, but now there are only about 4,000 gamekeepers compared to 25,000 in the early 1900s.

As Songbird Survival say on their website: “The RSPB has been singularly successful in attracting over one million members; however it cannot claim that its actions have in any way proved effective in preventing the decline in the songbird populations. It has been successful in re-introducing some raptor species but certainly does not find it convenient to tell its members that these predatory birds will add to the killing of literally millions of songbirds every year.”

It goes on: “There is now considerable evidence to support the view that, unless the population of some predators is controlled, there is little, if any, hope that the small bird populations can recover”.

Strong stuff! But don’t take my word for it, have a look at their website Songbird Survival. Most of it makes a lot of sense.

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