Though it is still unseasonably dry (we have had no more than a couple of millimetres of rain here in the last two months), spring and the rebirth of life continues apace. It is difficult to look beyond this gloriously sunny day and imagine what might be the consequence of a dry spell that continues for another month, but one glance at the newly exposed shingle banks along the river makes it clear that we badly need rain.
Remaining optimistic, however, and trusting our maritime climate to deliver rain at some point in the near future (perhaps by the time of the new moon in a fortnight), it is clearly not all bad news. The long warm spell has accelerated the pace at which life has returned to the hedgerows, woods, meadows and gardens whilst moisture still remains in healthy soils. Just this week, I sowed another row of carrots and found considerable dampness in the soil just below the surface. It’s a different story for those vast prairies subjected to the insanity of industrial agriculture, because such badly degraded soils will hold no moisture at all. One day we will all wake up to the lunacy of denaturing this most precious asset, but for now I refuse to let it get to me. I will instead think of the soil that Sally and I are directly responsible for and I am pleased that the earth in our garden is healthy enough to support all that grows there, despite the dryness.
After the arctic conditions of winter, we knew we would lose some favourite plants, and so we have. Yet there have been surprises too, and one or two established shrubs that looked withered, desiccated and totally defunct have put out new tentative shoots. Best of all, the profusion of spring flowers has coincided happily with the appearance of all manner of insects, including mining bees (andrena carantonica for all you academics out there). Allegedly quite common around the UK, we have never been aware of mining bees in our own garden, but now their tell-tale nest sites, which look a little like tiny volcanoes, are clearly visible amongst the newly sown seeds and even on our lawn. This is as nothing compared to the grass outside the New Harp Inn, which is now playing host to a whole colony of mining bees (Solitary bee? Moi?), but we are pleased to have a few ourselves. Aspen House is built of old red sandstone, so one type of bee we are guaranteed to see each year is the mason bee, thriving as ever in the tiny holes in our walls. We like to see them because we worry about declining numbers of bees, particularly honey bees and bumble bees. Honey bees visit from time to time, but the zeppelin-like bombus is a regular and has been much in evidence in the garden these last few weeks. At one time several days ago, I noticed three bumble bees on the same plant, all quite clearly very happy with this dry weather.
The birds are also predictably busy at the moment, announcing each new day with a lively and melodious dawn chorus. Not quite the kind of chorus that might get a gig at the Albert Hall, but harmonious and heartfelt nonetheless. Quite obviously numbers are reduced, but we are putting this down to the prolonged cold spell around Christmas. It was the kind of weather that kills indigenous evergreen hardwood trees like holly and bay, so little birds stood no chance. We are pretty sure large numbers of diminutive songsters simply froze to death. Once again, Man the Unstoppable Predator can blame himself for some of this, because we continue to convert our old farm buildings into luxury homes, thus depriving our little songbirds of the kind of refuge that once afforded them some shelter and helped them to survive harsh winters.
At the risk of focusing on the negative, we should remind ourselves that our industrial farming practices (which put small farmers out of business, which leaves farms to fall into the hands of developers, which takes away avian habitat . . .) have a massive overall impact on our wildlife in general, and our songbirds in particular. Some time between the Victorian age and the Second World War, the good citizens of Britain began to see these little feathered troubadours as something akin to wild pets, and the idea of ‘garden birds’ was born. Without this, many of our favourite species might well have passed into extinction. These little birds are not really garden birds as such, but woodland birds for the most part. With woodland disappearing so quickly, our gardens have become the last strongholds for many species. Out there in the big bad world, however, numbers continue to fall dramatically as habitat vanishes under the plough or via the chainsaw. What remains is also dying, poisoned by pesticides that indiscriminately kill insects, invertebrates and small furry animals alike. And all for the sake of useless commodity crops that do nothing except feed the voracious factories that process them into equally useless artificial foods. We know not what we do . . .
On a positive note, there have been many successful attempts to re-introduce birds in the UK, but efforts seem to be concentrated on the glamorous and iconic. People now flock to sites where they can see red kites, ospreys or sea eagles living in a natural habitat, and it is relatively easy to secure funds for the rehabilitation of these magnificent raptors, but what of the humble tree sparrow, the dunnock or the starling? These once common birds, and many other species besides, have been reduced in numbers by up to 95% in the last half a century – but no one really notices. It is difficult enough to spot a dunnock at the best of times, so it is hardly surprising that the general public is unaware of a decline in the numbers of these and other small birds, particularly as those that are left are highly visible, hanging from nut feeders and fat balls in suburban gardens, giving the impression that all is well.
Despite the alarming stories of declining bird populations and the unpredictability of weather in a time of changing climate, it is still a beautiful day. New life, whether it is spring flowers in the border, dandelions in the lawn, Jack-by-the-hedge along the roadside or new lambs in the field behind the pub, abounds, a timely reminder that nature is still running the show – and will be long after we are gone.