Exactly 150 years ago, in 1859, when Charles Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species, the countryside around his Kent home would have looked much the same as it does today.
However, the father of evolutionary science would probably find it incredible to realise the number of changes which have taken place in our bird populations since then.
Several species extinct in the UK in Darwin's lifetime have bounced back thanks to conservation efforts. However great his biological insight, the 'great man' would probably have not have believed that red kites would be flying again over English skies or that the avocet would have recolonised and would be spreading around our coastline. However, birds like the corncrake would still have been heard in south-east England and birds of farmed landscapes, such as the corn bunting and grey partridge, would have still been ubiquitous in many parts.
The truth is that over time bird populations change, but the realisation is that they change rapidly. The publication of the State of the UK's Birds report over the last ten years has revealed a surprising trend: rare birds in the UK are doing much better than common ones.
This year, for example: the great bustard nested for the first time since 1832; the bittern had their best year on record; and cranes nested in the Fens for the first time in four centuries. The lesson that we need to learn - and fast - is how we can transfer the successes from conserving rare birds and apply them to ensuring a future for our common ones.
We should take a great deal of solace from the fact that some of our marshes now resound to an orchestra of bittern and crane accompanied by the aerial displays of marsh harriers. However, spare a thought for the skylark the next time you're lucky enough to hear one soaring above a wheat field. Despite providing the soundtrack to virtually all those glorious days of summer we enjoyed as children this favoured songster is declining rapidly, along with many other common birds.
The trick is to try to get all of our bird populations in healthy state. The conservation movement has proved that the commitment, public will and practical experience are there in abundance to restore the ravages of changes in our countryside. We now need the funding to ensure a healthy future for all of our species. The skylarks will sing to that!
Today’s Daily Telegraph told the story of a couple accused of causing a rat infestation by feeding birds in their garden.
This comes as worrying news on the eve of Feed the Birds Day – but fear not, this is a very rare occurrence among the two thirds of population who regularly leave food out for birds over winter.
The RSPB’s advice is that when feeding birds householders should put out an appropriate amount of food for birds to consume during the day so that it doesn’t build up and get left out overnight when it can attract vermin.
Gardens are a hugely important habitat for songbirds, providing a refuge, especially in winter when food is more scarce. The aim of Feed the Birds day is to promote sensible and responsible bird feeding and show that it can be a real joy.
On Saturday, as part of the nationwide event, RSPB staff and volunteers up and down the country will be encouraging people to do things like leave out seed and put up bird tables in their gardens. There will be events at RSPB reserves with activities for all the family – we’re sure that people will get as much out of the day as birds will.
To find out all about the day, what’s happening near you and how you can get involved visit the web page here - http://www.rspb.org.uk/feedthebirds/
British farmers should not expect a future free from regulation if they are going to tackle food security and environmental challenges, according to RSPB conservation director Mark Avery.
This remark was made in response to a question from a farmer in the audience who was keen to see regulations removed from farming at a discussion at the Conservative Party conference which was covered in today’s Farmers Weekly.
The role farmers play in the environment is set to come under close scrutiny soon when the National Farmers Union launches its Campaign for the Farmed Environment. The campaign is the industry’s plan for recapturing the benefits to wildlife that were lost as a result of the removal of set-aside from the countryside.
Farmers are being asked to take land out of production, sow seed-rich field margins, plant hedgerows and protect watercourses so that birds, small mammals and invertebrates.
The RSPB has been developing ways for farmers to tend their land with wildlife in mind at its own Hope Farm in Cambridgeshire – which gives me a great chance to trumpet how successful the farm’s feathered occupants have been this year.
We’ve had another record year with 44 pairs of skylarks compared with 23 last year, five grey partridge pairs against last year’s three and 33 linnet pairs to 2008’s 18. Other species that are up are yellowhammer (39 pairs, up from 35 last year), whitethroat (48, up from 31) and greenfinch (20, up from 14). The total number of farmland bird birds at Hope Farm has risen 177 per cent since we bought the land in 2000. All that and our crops yields are above the national average.
All this proves that if we put in the effort we can ensure that our farmed countryside is able to put food on our tables, and provide a home for threatened wildlife at the same time. And if that happens then surely we’re all winners..
The Environment Agency has issued a warning over a pollution incident on the River Trent where cyanide and sewage were released into the water killing hundreds of fish.
Pollution incidents like this are one of the many threats facing our waterways in the UK. The RSPB, the WWF, the Association of Rivers Trusts and the Angling Trust recently launched the Our Rivers campaign to call for action to protect the UK’s waterways and its wildlife.
Here's what the RSPB's director of conservation Mark Avery had to say on the story.
“A recent report revealed that three quarters of our rivers are failing European targets for water quality, and now this incident has shown the devastating impact pollution can have on wildlife.
“The Government must surely now see the vital importance of putting in place tough legislation to protect our waterways – and the wildlife that rely on them – from the serious threats they face. And these laws need to be enforced so that those causing the damage are held to account.
“I understand hydrogen peroxide is being pumped into the river to mitigate the effects of the pollution. This sticking plaster will help deal with the emergency but it’s just not sustainable in the long term to be pouring more and more chemicals into our waters – we need to make sure that this kind of thing cannot happen in the first place.”
To find out more about the Our Rivers campaign and to adopt a stretch of river near you visit the website at www.ourrivers.org.uk
Kate Humble was this weekend announced as the new president of the RSPB.
She is only the second woman to fill the role. The first female president of the RSPB was also the first person of either sex to hold the post. In fact Winifred Cavendish-Bentinck, Duchess of Portland was remarkable in all sorts of ways.
As you may have surmised from her name, she wasn’t short of a bob or two. Her husband, a relative of the Queen Mother, was a horseracing magnate and politician. While he trained Derby winning horses, she made a name for herself as a pioneering animal rights activist and conservationist.
As well as being vice president of the RSPCA she remained president of the RSPB for an extraordinary 65 years. We’ll have to wait until 2074 to find out whether Kate can beat that record.
Other presidents include another wondrously monickered member of the nobility, Tufton Victor Hamilton Beamish, Baron Chelwood, a war hero and politician who fought hard for the introduction of the Protection of Birds Act 1954. Later, from his seat in the House of Lords, he championed the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 – but will be remembered by Private Eye readers for inspiring the satirical character Sir Bufton Tufton.
Next up in the 1970s was respected broadcaster Robert Dougall whose claims to fame included presenting the first ever BBC Nine O’Clock News and being the voice which informed the nation over the radio waves that war had been declared on Germany. He also seems to have ushered in a dynasty of teenage indie musicians with grandchildren in the bands The Pipettes and NME favourites Joe Lean and the Jing Jang Jong.
In the 1980s presidents included Max Nicholson, a founder of both the WWF and the British Trust for Ornithology, and Mastermind presenter Magnus Magnusson.
I’ve started so I’ll finish…
Later presidents included veteran broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby and the outgoing incumbent, respected television wildlife presenter Julian Pettifer.
So Kate is following in some fairly hallowed footsteps in her new role. But like many of those who have gone before here she has something vital for the job - an infectious passion for nature which we’re confident will inspire our members and the wider public.
So we hope you’ll join us in raising a glass and wishing her the very best of luck.