Philip Lymbery | How Birds Shaped My Life
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How Birds Shaped My Life

Forty years ago, as an avid member of the RSPB’s Young Ornithologist’s Club (YOC), I took part in a project to find Britain’s most common garden bird. Decades later and the Big Garden Birdwatch has grown from a ‘one-off’ project to an annual fixture with about half a million people taking part each year.   

The end of January bird count reminds me of how birds shaped my life. How they taught me to appreciate the natural world and how I came to realise that the plight of wild birds, farm animals and our own well-being, are all intertwined.

My First Goldfinch

Goldfinch at a bird feeder

In the 1970s, in a particularly cold winter, my mum helped me identify the most gorgeous, brightly coloured little bird in our garden: a goldfinch. I’d never seen anything so beautiful.

Goldfinches were rare in gardens back then; they were much more a bird of the wide-open farmland countryside.

Today, they may well have garden bird feeding to thank for their existence. Numbers of these fetching little finches have increased in our gardens by more than forty times over. They are essentially refugees from what the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) describes as a farmland environment that has suffered a ‘reduction in the availability of weed seeds, due to agricultural intensification’.

Farmland Refugees

It reminds me of something said by the Founding Father of the United States, Benjamin Franklin: there is ‘a place for everything, everything in its place’.

When I was growing up, the place to see wildlife was in the countryside; how things have changed. Now, industrial farming of plants and animals has led to some farmland birds fleeing the countryside for the sanctuary of our gardens.

Fieldfare in the snow

Intensification has caused much of the farmland countryside to become a wildlife desert. Once common farmland birds like turtle doves, grey partridges, corn buntings and tree sparrows have declined by 90 per cent or more over the last forty years. The skylark, lapwing and even the common starling have dwindled by at least 60 per cent. In recent decades, 2 million pairs of skylarks and a million pairs of lapwings have simply disappeared.

This great decline has gone on across much of Europe, the USA and other parts of the world where industrial farming has come to dominate. Birdlife International says the declines in Europe are widely accepted as being driven by agricultural intensification and the resulting deterioration of farmland habitats. US farmland bird losses are thought to be in response to the loss of small farms, declines of shrub habitat and expanding ‘industrial agriculture’.

But there is another way; one that can help restore wildlife to the countryside and protect farm animal welfare.

Mixed farming with a variety of crops interspersed with grazing animals that rotate around the farm is shown to be better for soil health, animal welfare and wildlife. It has long been a more natural way to produce food, building soil fertility, improving yields and avoiding infestation by pests and disease.

Less and Better Meat

A move to higher-welfare mixed farming systems is essential for the future of the countryside.

As is the need to take the pressure off our hard-pressed farmland altogether, by reducing overall consumption levels of meat and dairy; replacing high consumption levels of factory farmed produce with smaller quantities of better quality meat and dairy from pasture-fed, free range and organic farms. After all, 83% of our agricultural land globally is used to produce meat and dairy products which themselves supply little more than a quarter of humanity’s protein. That’s a lot of wildlife habitat used to produce so little food.

Better meat and milk from mixed, rotational agriculture without factory farming, combined with reduced consumption of livestock products in favour of more plants, is increasingly being seen as the future. After all, eating more plants and less and better meat and dairy would solve many of the world’s most urgent problems.

Those goldfinches in my garden – refugees from the wider countryside – remind me every day of the urgent need to rethink our food if we are to save the countryside for future generations.