Little Bit Of Bread

Progress on the walk from North Waltham to Steventon churchyard has been much impeded of late, which is a pity, as it’s about the only interesting walk option from our front door (living in the countryside is all very well, but it doesn’t mean there will be an abundance of public footpaths). A noisy hour during which the hedgerows got a short back and sides from an evil-looking metal arm on a tractor, intimidating and irritable cows strewn across the path, and a dozy but unpredictable horse all conspired to render a half-hour direct walk rather complicated.

But no matter, for by way of consolation the local yellowhammer flock has been in good form lately. I feel almost guilty for disturbing them, as they do tend to flock in front of me, bouncing further along the hedgerow one by one as I get too close. With bright little chirps and trills to match the child’s paint palette bright yellow of their feathers, chestnut-streaked flanks and white-edged tail, they certainly do liven up what remains of the recently shorn blackthorns and elders.

The yellowhammer’s song is said to resemble their asking for a mere crumb of bread, with no cheese, although this being winter they aren’t wasting energy on rhymes of late: I haven’t heard the locals strike up that familiar tune in a while. They stick to contact notes, expending energy on more useful activities: feeding, fleeing, gaudily decorating the tips of bare branches. I, of course, ask for a good deal more than a little bit of bread when I’m out in the countryside, more even than milk and meat from the sturdy black cows.

Indeed, if any of the land hereabouts is under an environmental stewardship agreement, some of my taxes (at least, the ones I paid when I actually earned something) may have ended up in those yellowhammers. In a very roundabout sort of way. And I think that’s quite a good deal. Taxes are spent on many more controversial things than harmless lemon-yellow birds or, more broadly, gently starting to correct the many mistakes made over decades in pursuit of production at all and any cost (mistakes of which we the consumers of historically cheap food are by no means innocent).

I don’t take wildlife for granted when I’m in the countryside, but I do expect to find it. It’s a part of the package, part of the ‘green and pleasant’ experience that few dispute the English rural landscape ought to be. Funnily enough, most farmers understand this, I’m sure, and whoever is responsible for practising that noble art locally had set out some small heaps of grain, I imagine expressly for the birds; today’s bird heroes, the yellowhammers, were gratefully helping themselves, with chaffinches in attendance.

And whether or not taxpayers’ money had gone into that seed (I suspect it was more likely to be an unbidden expression of inter-species generosity), I’m glad that the needs of, and needs for wildlife across farmed Britain are more recognised than they were perhaps twenty or so years ago. That’s a position under threat, Europe-wide, alas. I won’t bore you with the details but I do, as the RSPB’s latest slogan suggests, encourage all my readers to ‘step up’ and defend the link between agricultural grants and the environment. And since it’s generally accepted that farming for birds and bugs and other beasts shouldn’t impede the profitability of farming as a whole, I also tentatively suggest you continue to happily ‘pay up’ the very tiny fraction of your taxes which will end up in ‘frivolous’ things like farmland birds (though there’s plenty of evidence that farming for wildlife needn’t be at the expense of ‘proper’ farming). Stewardship schemes may be imperfect, and often clumsily implemented and administered, but as a principle they’re worth defending. Now, if we could just extend that scheme to preventing obstinate livestock from blocking public footpaths, we’d really be (quite literally) getting somewhere.

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