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I was privileged to join legendary naturalist and broadcaster, Chris Packham in London’s Berkeley Square this week at a pop-up conservation event to celebrate the song of the Nightingale.

The association between bird and place was immortalised by the romantic British popular song, A Nightingale sang in Berkeley Square, from around the Second World War.

Ironically, in the decades since the song rose to popularity, Nightingales have disappeared from the countryside at an alarming rate. The species has declined by 90 per cent in the last fifty years.  Their plight is thought to be linked to loss of habitat, both in Britain, where they breed, and perhaps abroad, where they spend winter.   

The plight of the Nightingale is echoed by a host of once-common farmland bird species like Corn Buntings, Tree Sparrows, Grey Partridges and Turtle Doves, all of which have suffered steep declines of about 90 per cent, largely driven by agricultural intensification.

Beautiful Sound

Singing Nightingale – Credit: VictorTyakht

Nightingales aren’t great lookers: they are nondescript fawn-coloured birds about the size of a robin. But then you rarely get to see them. They like hiding deep in bushes, from where they emit the most beautiful sound.

So, so, so . . . huit, huit, huit . . .

Their song seems so deliberate, so pitch-perfect, so precise, that I am always mesmerised when I hear it. I heard my first nightingale as a teenager. I remember the day as if decades had not intervened. I was in Northward Hill, Kent. I knew what I was listening for, because I’d familiarised myself with the sound on a vinyl record of classic birdsong given to me by my grandad. That day in mid-May, I heard it, the sound imprinted on my mind from the record:

So, so, so . . . huit, huit, huit . . .

Down the centuries, nightingales have inspired so many poets and writers – and no wonder. Long-distance migrants, they spend summer in the most temperate parts of Britain, mainly southeast of a line from the Humber to the Severn, and winter somewhere between the Sahara and the rainforests of West Africa.

Tale of Decline

Over the last few decades, Britain has lost over 40 million farmland birds at the rate of a breeding pair gone every single minute.

A big factor in their decline is agricultural intensification: cages, chemical pesticides, fertilisers and crop monocultures. As field sizes expanded, so trees, hedges and bushes – vital habitat for birds – have disappeared. Heavy use of chemical sprays have meant that many insects and seed-bearing plants – essential food for birds and other wildlife – have disappeared.

As intensive farming has expanded across Britain and Europe, wildlife has been swept away by a growing green desert. As a former wildlife tour leader, I can honestly say I’ve seen more birds in the Sahara Desert than in some of the intensively farmed fields of England. 

Industrial agriculture – of both crops and animals – is the biggest cause of animal cruelty on the planet and a major driver of wildlife declines. The two are interlinked: nearly half of our entire grain harvest is fed to industrially reared animals.

As our natural world retreats in the wake of the relentless onslaught of industrial farming, so we essentially undermine humanity’s own life support system.

Let Nature Sing

That is why Compassion in World Farming joins in common cause with all who want to create a future worth having; for future generations of animals and people on a thriving planet.

And surely one of the essential signs of a healthy planet is the richness of bird song.

So, whether in tuneful fable about Berkeley Square, or the woodland and copse of the wider countryside, let’s all do what we can to help those songs ring out. And huge thanks to Compassion’s new patron, Chris Packham, for inspiring us to let nature sing.

So, so, so . . . huit, huit, huit . . .

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