It seems to sneak up earlier every year, but around here the fairy-lights are going up, the malls are piping out Christmas crooners, and even my family has started rummaging in the attic for wreaths and swags. We have plenty of festive feasts marked on the calendar, too - from work team lunch to festive family fun days at the kids’ schools.
Although it’s a time for excess and gay abandon, as a nation we’re going to be getting through a lot of food over the coming weeks, and it’s worth thinking about how it might affect nature. With reference to these tips from the RSPB’s award-winning reserve cafes, here are a few tips for making your Christmas shopping basket kinder to nature.
1. Buy seasonal and local
Embrace the Brussels sprouts! They’re a natural winter crop (in fact, I have several stems of sprouts ‘fattening up’ in my vegetable beds as we speak, ready for the big day), so growers won’t have to deploy artificial techniques to grow them. Potatoes, parsnips, celeriac, swede, carrots, leeks, chestnuts, pears, red and white cabbage, kale and other greens – as well as turkey, mackerel, lamb and pheasant – are also good local choices at this time of year. They also won’t use up loads of fossil fuels by being transported long distances. If you’re near a farmer’s market, go there for great local produce - but you can also search for UK-grown produce in supermarkets.
2. Buy organic
Organic food is grown without artificial chemicals - basically as it was for thousands of years until the agricultural revolution of the mid-20th century. Organic arable land is often friendlier for wildlife, the lack of chemicals allowing for more insects to support birds and other wildlife. Look for certified organic labels and hallmarks such as Fair to Nature, Leaf or Pasture Fed - all produced in wildlife-friendly ways.
3. Reduce waste
Do you really need that plastic bag for your loose veg? Maybe you can just pop them all on the scales at the till and they’ll survive the journey home rattling round in your bag-for-life… or bring a little muslin bag along to scoop them into. Food wrappers are designed to be used for two seconds, but will last for centuries and, if not recycled, they could end up blown into waterways and thence the sea, where they kill seabirds and other marine life. It also uses up fossil fuel and adds to your food prices. If you can buy and transport your food without plastic, give it a go - and let the retailer know how you feel about it. I don’t know about you, but I get ‘cucumber rage’ whenever I have to do battle with a plastic cucumber wrap that’s snugger than Mick Jagger’s trousers, that I never wanted in the first place, and usually risk injury to remove just so I can throw it in the bin!
4. More veg, less meat
It’s healthier for you, healthier for nature. Animal agriculture is a leading contributor to greenhouse gases and climate change, and also drives deforestation of tropical forests. Did you know that the vast majority of the global soya crop is grown to produce animal feed, which is then fed to farm animals around the world? So, surround your centrepiece with a rainbow of interesting veg dishes. Our traditional Christmas table typically groans with super-crispy potatoes; chilli-roasted sprouts in pomegranate and maple syrup; honey-glazed parsnips; nutmeggy swede mash; braised red cabbage with apple, red wine and cranberry; carrots with cumin; leeks in creamy white wine, and anything else we can cobble together. I’m ravenous just thinking about it.
So there are four easy ways to do something good for the nature you love, while also enjoying the festive season to the full!
Look out for more festive fun from the Nature’s Home team in the weeks ahead.
If you go down to the woods today, you’re in for a big surprise. A handsome finch, so secretive and scarce that even the keenest birders go years without catching a glimpse of one is invading the UK in numbers not seen in living memory. This big-beaked beauty is turning up literally everywhere, providing unprecedented opportunities to see one in the UK. My blog this week aims to help you do just that.
This classy bird has created a media storm, so perhaps you are already aware that autumn 2017 has been the autumn of the hawfinch. A seed crop failure on the continent seems to be the cause as large numbers have been seen elsewhere in Western Europe over the last three weeks, or so. Every day has seen flocks of hawfinches piling in and flying overhead in all sorts of locations as they seek to get to grips with their new, temporary home, find the best feeding spots and team up with others of their own kind.
I’m among the many birders that have already added it to their garden list, which is something I never would have thought possible. I was enjoying a morning cup of tea on our landing when I picked up their characteristic call and watched two drop into hawthorns in the garden. They spent a couple of minutes perched there before they zoomed off in opposite directions and that was that.
I’ve also been lucky to be able to enjoy several here at The Lodge. I’ve worked here for 12 years and have never even come close to even a sniff of one but tea breaks and lunch breaks have delivered more than once making coming to work even more enjoyable than usual!
The hawfinch is an absolute stunner (Ben Andrew rspb-images.com)
Five steps to hawfinch successYou will probably never have a better chance to see a hawfinch, so here are a few tips to ensure you cash in on the current invasion now and over the winter as the birds stay in the flocks they are now forming in our woods. I predict that good flocks will be available for the next few months, which is very exciting news for the winter ahead!
1) Learn the call. Every hawfinch I have seen so far in the last couple of weeks, I have heard first. Listen out for the flight notes and keep your ears open at all times. If you hear the call, get your eyes to the skies and look for a short-tailed, “front-heavy” finch bounding over, flashing prominent pale patches in its wings and on the end of its tail.
2) Get to grips with your tree ID. Hornbeams are the tree of choice it seems with the birds feasting on the seeds. Apparently in some spots, you can hear them munching on the seeds via a constant “crackle” as those enormous beaks get to work! Yew trees are also worth a look and the invaders have also been seen munching on haws on hawthorns.
3) Get up early and watch the skies. New arrivals are still being seen in the first couple of hours after dawn as they finish their migration from the continent. Make yourself comfortable and watch the skies to see if you can get lucky. High ground is particularly good as the birds tend to hug it and follow lines of hills.
4) Find a clear viewpoint. Rather than standing in a wood, surrounded by trees and with limited viewing, stand on the edge or in a clearing so you get a clear view of the treetops and more sky in which to see them flying over.
5) Hang about in the afternoons. Hawfinches roost communally, so as well as trying an early morning stint for new arrivals and early "just got up" action, linger until late afternoon in woodland and parkland settings. You might get lucky with several birds heading over to roost, or better still perching up in the treetops before dropping down into thicker cover to spend the night.
Have you seen one?Have you seen a hawfinch this autumn? Please leave a comment below, or e-mail email@example.com
No bird feeder? No problem. Try these easy homemade ways of feeding your local birds this winter.
1. Cardboard roll bird feeder
A simple cardboard tube feeder is easy to make and a quick tasty treat for birds. Photo: Emma Pocklington
- A cardboard tube (a kitchen roll is perfect)
- Two long sticks or skewers
- Some lard or suet
- A piece of string
First, make four holes in one end of your cardboard tube, these must be large enough for your sticks or skewers, but not so large that the sticks slide out. Make sure the holes opposite each other line up so that you can thread your stick through. Next, make two small holes opposite each other in the other end of your tube. Use a knife to cover your roll in lard or suet, vegetarian varieties are good too. Roll the tube in bird seed so that the seed sticks to the lard. Finally, carefully thread the sticks through to make a cross shape, and attached a piece of string to the two top holes. Then you’re ready to hang your feeder outside!
2. Orange bird feeder
The beauty of this feeder is that you can fill it with scraps as well as shop-bought seed. Photo: iStock
- A large orange
- Assorted nuts and seeds
This one is really simple, simply cut a large orange in half and scoop out the insides. Then, thread two pieces of string through the orange so that it hangs upright. Fill the orange with whatever bird food you fancy. You could stick with birdseed or try peanuts, mealworms, suet, dried fruit or even leftovers such as cheese or cake.
3. Homemade fat cake
Homemade fat cakes allow for endless tasty variations. Photo: Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
- Suet or lard
- An old yoghurt pot
This is a great one to do with kids, as everyone can blend their own secret ingredients and see which the birds like best. Melt the suet or lard in a bowl (you can use vegetarian lard if you wish) and mix in seeds, nuts, oatmeal, dried fruit, cheese or cake. Meanwhile, make a small hole in the base of a yoghurt pot and run a string through. When you tip the mixture into the yoghurt pot, be sure to run the tail of the string through the centre of the mixture so that it will be firmly fixed in the middle when set. Leave in the fridge until set. When the cake is set you can pop it out of the yoghurt pot and hang it in your garden. Alternatively, simply turn the pot out onto your bird table, or leave it out for birds in another container, such as a cup or empty coconut shell.
REMEMBER: Don’t use cooking fat in bird feeders as the meat juices present are not good for birds’ feathers. Also avoid margarines, vegetable oils, milk, desiccated coconut and any mouldy food. If using peanuts, salted or dry roasted peanuts should not be used. Peanuts can be high in a natural toxin, which can kill birds, so buy from a reputable dealer to guarantee freedom from aflatoxin. You can find more guidance on what to give birds here, and buy bird seed mixes, including peanuts, from the RSPB Shop.