curiosity about the ways of the world

Look this way: the glass is half full

A proper winter morning for a change. I’m birdwatching by the window with a cooling coffee. There’s a cluster of blue tits on the birch tree feeder, chaffinches catching crumbs on the ground. One robin, two blackbirds, three red squirrels frisky in the snow. Sights for sore eyes and sad hearts this grim December when there’s precious little seasonal comfort and joy.  But look, look! There’s a nuthatch again. Is it the one that likes to pose?

The window frames a view but what I see depends on whether I’m looking inwards or outwards.  My head is so often cluttered with bad news. The places which used to offer comforting glimpses of wonderland – Planet Earth, wildlife magazines – now sound alarms of the ways we are laying waste to the natural world. A walk in the woods can stir a nagging fear that the beauty round me is hanging by a thread. Campaigners rightly monitor and mourn what we are losing – how much we have already lost, and deliberately destroyed – yet we need to count and celebrate what’s still very much alive. And understand why.  

At the chillier beginning of this month, I got the chance to do just that here at Pond Cottage. A joyful bird ringing morning brought real-life evidence of a more abundant multitude than Ray and I can see through the windows, or even when we’re out working and walking among the trees.

At first light, George and Bethia, two very nice young British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) volunteers, arrived with all the kit and caboodle you need to gently capture and record feathery bundles of songbirds: mist nets, mini metal rings, pliers, cloth bags, logbook, hot drinks…rechargeable hand warmer (the thermometer said minus five).  I’d met George a week earlier when he came to check the lie of our land.  He has eight years’ experience as a BTO volunteer and an uncanny good eye. “A kingfisher” he noted casually as we walked along the edge of the stream. “Red wings” he added glancing skywards near the bridge.  Now, on this cold and frosty morning, he says they have just met a tawny owl halfway along our lane.

At this time of year sunrise is around 8.30am. The feeders are soon busy. When I venture out, I’m startled to find the mist nets already up, flickering and fluttering with small birds. Feathers of gold, brown, red, blue. At first, I’m a little alarmed. The captives look so small and fragile, caught in mid-air, like autumn leaves. Will they get hurt trying to get free?  But the mesh is so fine, “Like cobweb” as 10-year-old grandson Paddy puts it. And the ringers know what they’re doing. Bethia

Measuring a young blue tit's wings, BTO volunteer birdringers note the wing feathers that indicate whether the bird hatched this year or in previous years
The bird ringer gently examines a blue tit’s wings, this one hatched in 2023

shows us the ringer’s two-fingered hold – index and middle finger gently securing the bird’s head while the other hand deftly fits metal ring to leg with ID and location numbers. Then Paddy and I get the extraordinary treat of each releasing a robin. There’s something very special about looking such a small, alert creature in the eye. An unblinking, inquisitive gaze.

In almost five hours the nets catch a total of 98 birds (each batch ringed and freed within 30 minutes). Mostly tits – 42 blue tits, 19 coal tits, 16 great tits – but also 3 dunnocks, 5 robins, 2 nuthatches, 1 treecreeper, 1 goldcrest, 1 wren and among 8 chaffinches there’s one from Scandinavia (it has longer wings than British natives). It has travelled more than 500 miles, probably from Norway, in search of a milder winter.

And counting

Counting matters at a time of time of plunging and shifting populations. When bird ringing began in 1909 BTO was mostly concerned with recording bird movements. Now the main focus is on changing populations. Bethia and George are among 3,000 BTO volunteers spending their spare time ringing a million birds in Britain and Ireland every year. The numbers they record – the range of species, how many fledglings survive one year to the next, and where they are doing well, or not – provide crucial information for conservationists (and policy makers) attempting to reverse decline.

Currently, less than 10% of public funding given to the industry pays for farming methods that support nature and tackle climate change. This must change.

RSPB Scotland

Around 70% of Scotland is covered with farmland and agricultural funding has made its mark on the landscape. Scotland, for all its apparently wild beauty, is like the rest of the UK “one of the most nature-depleted countries on Earth” – I’m struck by the irony that our little migrant chaffinch has made its long, hazardous journey from Norway’s richer environment. At present Scottish government funding rewards the biggest landowners for destroying habitats, while smaller farmers play catchup.

Change is so agonisingly slow. Yet, if Scottish politicians have the courage they can grasp the opportunities in the Agriculture and Rural Communities Bill, currently being scrutinised by MSPs. Scottish Environment LINK – an impressive coalition of every environmental organisation you’ve ever heard of and quite a few more – urges us to write to Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Mairi Gougeon asking her to make sure public funding gives both farmers and nature a fighting chance of survival.  

Across our hedge a view of the neighbouring field. A solitary hawthorn marks an old field boundary where once a thriving hedgerow would have been shelter for wildlife. Photo Fay Young

I am writing this with a good view of the neighbouring fields. I live on a woodland island surrounded by farmland, and enjoy watching the folds and furrows charting the changing seasons. But it’s sad to see just one forlorn hawthorn on the former field boundary, all that’s left of what was once a hedgerow full of life, a victim of misguided 20th century policy which destroyed half of Scotland’s hedgerows. NatureScot extols the value of hedges and field margins but as yet, there are no hedges, trees, or reeds securing the banks of streams which run polluted water through our pond and on down to Loch Leven. Dear Mairi Gougeon, all this could and should change with great benefit to a rebounding multitude of wild creatures (including humans).

Take a bow Mr and Mrs Nuthatch

A tap at the window. George and Bethia beckon with big smiles. The tiny goldcrest

Goldcrest. That orange flash denotes the male. Photo By Frank Vassen from Brussels, Belgium - Goldcrest, Auderghem, BrusselsUploaded by Snowmanradio, CC BY 2.0,

is a thrilling find. A young male. “See these bright orange feathers under the gold cap”, that’s the telltale sign. This is Britain’s smallest bird and our newly ringed captive is swiftly released. “In these temperatures it needs to be feeding constantly.”  

Climate change is changing the numbers and the feeding grounds. Goldcrests and nuthatches used to be rare visitors to Scotland. “The nuthatches’ move north has been remarkable,” responds a naturalist friend excited to read our news, “breeding was first reported in the  Borders in 1989 …  It would be interesting to know what the current Perthshire population is.”

Well, definitely two so far at Pond Cottage, a male and a female. According to BTO, RSPB and Woodland Trust they can lay up to eight eggs in a breeding season so perhaps we can look forward to a healthy increase in 2024.  It’s not easy to look on the bright side in a chaotic world where my species seems determined to self-destruct. (Perhaps without realising it we are driven mad by our own catastrophic climate change.) But there is more to life than doom. It’s wonderful to watch our dapper little bird being coaxed to pose for a close-up.  

We need to rediscover what is through the window. I’m sure we can do better but this birdringing morning shows what a small woodland and wetland planting can support with regular top ups at the bird feeders. It’s a glass half full and if we act now we can top it up further.  Take a bow, Mr and Mrs Nuthatch.

With thanks to our BTO volunteers for an unforgettably uplifting experience.

Images: Pond Cottage photographs by Fay Young. Goldcrest Photo By Frank Vassen from Brussels, Belgium CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia

Further reading: BTO Support the future of our birds

RSPB State of Nature Report

Scottish Environment Link Write to Mairi Gougeon: Make Farming Work for nature climate and people

Look this way, a nuthatch poses beautifully for BTO volunteer bird ringers at Pond Cottage. Photo Fay Young

1 Comment

  1. fay

    Change is agonisingly slow. “We need a much more ambitious approach” says Scottish Environment Link urging the Scottish Government to use the pending Agriculture And Rural Communities Bill to take the radical action that is urgently needed.

    “Please write to Mairi Gougeon calling for a farm funding system that works for nature, climate and people.”

    So I have done. This is my letter to the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Land Reform and Islands.

    Dear Cabinet Secretary

    I am a small landowner with great concerns that the Scottish government plans to continue spending most of its farming budget on ‘direct payments’ to farmers based on how much land they farm.

    This would be a tragically wasted opportunity to reverse the destructive policies which have caused such harm to nature – and undermined the wellbeing of many rural communities.

    The Agriculture and Rural Communities Bill offers what should be an unmissable opportunity to give farmers a chance to produce good food sustainably while tackling climate change and restoring nature – and ensuring the Scottish Government meets its own climate and nature targets.

    Yet this vital chance will be thrown away if public spending continues to give direct payments to farmers with limited environmental conditions,

    I am writing this looking through my window at the neighbouring fields surrounding the small woodland and wetland plot which is home to my husband and I, along with a life-enhancing population of birds, bees and red squirrels.

    The surrounding countryside is not so rich. Our neighbouring farmers do their best but the present – and planned – Scottish government agricultural funding policy benefits the biggest landowners and gives small farmers insufficient incentive or support to manage their land for the mutual benefit of humans and wildlife.

    It is shocking to learn that Scotland – where 70% of land is farmland – is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world.

    Please, use the new system to ensure that at least three quarters of public spending on farming supports farmers and crofters to produce food in ways that restore nature and tackle climate change. In this way Scotland can inspire the changes we urgently need to secure a viable way of life now and in the future.

    with hope

    Fay Young

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