Saturday 4 June 2022

Feeling Old...

Here are a few quotes from The Birds of London (2014) by Andrew Self. See if you can work out which species they refer to:

'By the mid-1930s they were still a common and widespread breeding resident in the rural areas but had been pushed out of the inner December 1947 a flock of more than 40 was seen on Barnes Common...On Hampstead Heath there were five territorial males in 1954...The population began to decrease from the 1970s onwards...on Wimbledon Common they declined from 10 pairs in 1976 to just one pair by 1984 when breeding was last recorded...The closest breeding birds to central London were at Barn Hill, near Wembley, where two pairs bred in the mid-1970s...The species continued to decrease during the 1990s with some populations going into a terminal decline...At least 148 pairs/singing males were located across the London Area in 1998.'

The 2016 London Bird Report states that '...there were 54 territories/singing males...' in that year, apparently from 21 sites. I do not know how things stand right now, but I can guess.

Singing males...

It is fair to say that the song of this species is iconic, and the first time I consciously registered it was in the very early 1970s, at one of the locations mentioned above - Barn Hill, near Wembley. I must have been 11 or 12, but had no idea there were none closer to central London, or indeed of the species' wider status. To me they were simply the prize birds of Barn Hill, my nearest bit of 'countryside'.

Mostly I visited Barn Hill to fish the pond, but once I had crossed the railway footbridge and adjacent field, and passed through the line of trees which skirted the foot of the hill, the path climbed a grassy slope studded with the odd scrubby little Oak, and maybe Hawthorn. Here is where they lived. And probably you have guessed the bird by now. Yellowhammer.

According to the BTO website, Yellowhammer is experiencing a 'rapid decline'. That is putting it mildly. Basically, for every three breeding pairs back when I first recall seeing them, there is now one. Why? Again according to the BTO website, primarily the causes are 'decreased survival' and 'agricultural intensification', the two presumably not mutually exclusive.

By chance I came across some aerial shots* of Barn Hill which date from 1947...

In the very early 1970s I would appear over the railway footbridge at top left, head SE across the field, through the line of trees, then puff eagerly up the slope to the pond.

A closer view...

In 1947 the slope down from the pond to the north looks almost entirely open grassland. Twenty-odd years later there were a number of scrubby little trees.

And this is what it looks like now...

This is as close a match to the above pic as I could manage.

And zooming out a bit...

Looks quite nice I guess. No Yellowhammers though.

I last visited Barn Hill in 2017. That walk up the grassy hillside, so vivid in my memory, now passes through a dense woodland ringing with the screech of parakeets. It is part of Fryent Country Park, a dedicated nature reserve.

I am fortunate to have Yellowhammers local to me. They are a familiar sight in some places, but definitely not all. Just three territories in the Bridport recording area during 2021, and nowhere locally would I call it common. The species is slipping through our fingers...

As I began this post I wondered why I was bothering, what its point was exactly. I'm still not sure. I suppose it sometimes bothers me that we get all excited about the successes - the Spoonbills, Red Kites, Bitterns etc, etc - and the rarities which have us rushing all over the place, while so many less spectacular birds are quietly being throttled into oblivion. Am I saying we shouldn't get excited about stuff? No, not really. So what am I saying? Goodness knows...

Anyway, I do now understand why elderly birders tut and shake their heads so much, and witter on about the 'old days'.

Male Yellowhammer at Mapperton. Good choice, Mr Yellowhammer.

* Historic England Aerial Photos


  1. If only it was just yellowhammers. Sparrows, swifts, swallows, little owl, kestrel etc...... I've noticed local declines over the last two decades of living in Herefordshire from realtively casual observations. Yes, we have kites overhead every day, as you so rightly say, the little guys are missing out. It's as though we (collectively) are all for the underdog and when they are waning on a red list, action may be taken.

    On the other hand, we are knee deep in goldfinches. It's just the cyclic nature of wildlife and nature in general. Looking at Barni Hill, the common has developed into a wooded area which is just what is needed nowadays and gives habitat to so much more wildlife.

    Our country is too small to satisfy everything and if farmers would just lay off their chemical use for a year or three, we'd all see a difference.

    1. The list of declining species is depressing in the extreme, Dave. And that's never mind the invertebrates! Plus the issues extend way beyond these shores of course.

      Re Barn Hill... I am just pleased so much green space still exists there. None of it has been built on, as far as I can see. I suspect this post was as much a lament for lost childhood as anything else.
      PS. As a kid I can remember exploring the remains of a prefab estate next to Barn Hill. Known as the Pilgrims Way estate, Charlie Watts grew up there.

    2. I'm also shocked and depressed at the drop in numbers of so many creatures. The 60% decline in insects over 20 years, a figure echoed across Europe, is alarming in the extreme, less food = less birds.
      As for nostalgia and the feeling of getting old, sorry mate, can't help you with that, I'm a fellow sufferer.

  2. Gav, I seem to cross the path of Yellowhammers quite often when out on the bike. That said, considering the distances I cover, their numbers could be a lot thinner on the ground than appears. They are still around the Rickmansworth and Harefield areas.

    1. That's good to hear, Ric. There are some enlightened farmers out there though. Google 'Woodoaks Farm' (Maple Cross) for a typical example. But it's all pockets of habitat. The squeeze is relentless.

  3. Yellowhammers are just on the edge of things on Galley Head, where I am. When I first moved here 20 years ago, I'd usually get one or 2 records in autumn of birds booting over. They seem to be more regular these days and they do occasionally breed here I think - we had 3 singing males in the recent Atlas census and still one singing male this spring . A bit of a resurgance in arable on the head is probably helping. They are a bit easier inland but their range is decreasing I think.

    1. Cheers Col, your good(ish) news story makes a nice change. Evidently there are locations where it isn't all doom and gloom. If only the overall picture wasn't so dreadful...