Thursday, 6 September 2012

Going feral

'Feral' is an much-maligned term. It's often used in a derogatory sense - for someone who is unruly or untrustworthy, or for an animal that is neither pet nor wild, and as such of no use to anyone.Yet its true definition is 'something that was once domesticated, but is returning to the wild'. Surely in many cases then, a state to be desired.

The fields to the north of the village are 'feral'. Once cultivated, they are now a tangle of thistles and sheep sorrel, chickweed and redshanks, like the shaggy, unkempt pelt of a stray dog. But on a warm, summer day they hum with life - butterflies, bees, flies and the rest hopping around the buttercups and cranesbills like fleas.

Today is not a tame, summer's day. Today is as feral as the fields. Yesterday's gentle breeze and mild tawny sunlight have been replaced by a rough wind, and rain that feels like cold seaspray spattering my face. The clouds are a dirty grey flannel wiped across the face of the sky. The weather is returning to wild.

I was walking, hunched and gloomy, around the River Field, when a tight flock of small birds passed above my head, drawing sine waves in the sky with their flight. They were linnets, about twenty of them, chattering to each other as they flew like giggling schoolchildren. Linnets need feral land, land where the weeds are allowed to grow and set seed, land where the hedges and shrubs are tall and loose. Land that has been disappearing in the UK over the last 40 years.

Linnets are not a well-known bird these days. These neat little finches seldom occur in built-up areas, and their mostly streaky brown plumage doesn't draw much attention - despite the males' rather half-hearted attempts to spruce himself up for the mating season with ruffous bib and headband. Yet in Victorian times the birds were prized for their mellifluous songs, and caught in their thousands to be caged for the drawing rooms of the leafy suburbs. Their numbers plummeted as a result.

Once they fell out of favour as pet Carusos their numbers recovered, and linnets were a common countryside bird. Then came the inevitable population crash, shared by many other farmland birds, when farm intensification really began to bite in the late 1970s. The combination of increased herbicide use, and the autumn sowing of cereals - which meant no overwinter stubble fields, decimated their numbers. Since then the population has declined by over 50%, putting them on the UK Red List of threatened species.

Rough fields like ours are what they need. Unlike many birds, including other finches, they are entirely seed eaters. Their name, 'linnet', comes from the French 'linette', meaning 'flax-eater', while their scientific name Carduelis cannabina, means 'of thistles and hemp'!  They even feed their chicks on seeds - albeit the soft ones. So those tall spires of deep red sorrel seedheads, the thistledown, and the redshanks, are vital food. The scrubby hawthorns and willows that line the railway embankment and river bank are perfect nesting sites.

In the last few years things have looked up slightly. Oil seed rape has provided a new source of food over the summer, while agri-environment schemes have encouraged farmers to leave more land unmanaged. And as a result linnet numbers are going up in some places. There will be more chittering flocks flying in rough, feral  fields over glum walkers on grim days, brightening their lives. Surely, a state to be desired.

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