Countryside near White Horse hill, Oxfordshire. In need of patch champions?
Birding a local patch. It’s the in thing. In an age when good environmentalists like us suffer from ever increasing carbon footprint angst, it’s hard to justify petrol-fueled listing mania. Nurturing a patch is like tending a garden, too, or so I’m told – over time, your relationship with it will grow, and it may reward you with untold wonders. Perhaps you’ll find a mega rarity, and the kingdom, the power, and the glory will be yours. For five minutes or so. The ‘Urban Birder’ David Lindo is pretty evangelical about the subject, probably because his patch, Wormwood Scrubs in west London, has hosted 138 species since 1980, including little and Ortolan buntings, a Richard’s pipit which I believe he found himself, and such London oddities as oystercatcher, whimbrel and white-fronted goose. Not too shabby. I suppose birds in that part of the country have few other places to go, so that does make things somewhat easier.
I’ve moved around rather too often in the last few years to develop a patch of my own that sizzles with excitement in quite the same way, but in North Hampshire I think I’ve hit a little gold mine. I haven’t been around here for long, but my patch list already boasts rough-legged buzzard, long-eared owl, red kite, stone curlew, quail, wheatear, yellow wagtail, lapwing and golden plover. I cheated a little bit by adopting it after seeing those first two rather fantastic birds, but it is only a few miles away, so I think I’m justified in claiming it. My even more local patch just outside the village has healthy populations of linnets, yellowhammers and house sparrows, and red kites are again frequent visitors. We’ve seen barn owls, hares, bats and stoats around the village and lanes. In other words, wildlife here can be pretty brilliant, and I’d be surprised if any random part of the country didn’t host something worth looking at.
One of the chief joys of birding, and perhaps one of the main reasons why so many people enjoy watching wildlife, is the possibility of escape. Tracking down, carefully observing and simply enjoying the presence of other free, independent creatures can enable the watcher to become so engrossed in the lives of others that we temporarily forget the struggles and sorrows of our own, and I think even the most contented of souls will still have enough troubles to make this a liberating experience.
In our rushed, unforgiving twenty-first century existence I suspect we need such escapes more and more, though I’m sure countless people have found solace in encounters with wildlife through past ages as well. But there is something about the pace of the world which instills a sense of worry into life, a feeling that time not spent doing anything particularly productive is time wasted, and that the ever growing list of tasks which simply must be done will eventually overwhelm us, swallowing our freedom altogether. Perhaps that is just me.
Silver washed fritillary. Definitely better than mosquitos.
I’m a murderer. There, I said it. I mean, I did everything I could – with the possible exception of traps positioned, somewhat foolishly, on what were probably badger tracks, they were out of the way, and covered with a well-fitted foil tray lid, millimeters above the ground. Surely, just low slung ground beetles and the like, the targets of my endeavours, would be foolish enough to stumble in? But no, after just the first fourteen traps, Hampshire was five shrews down. On their part, not so shrewd – to be honest, I’m not entirely sure how they got the name.
I am happy to report that my vertebrate catch rate has fallen dramatically since that first fateful day, although the very occasional mouse or frog has fallen foul of my pits of death since then. Some might balk at so much death in the name of conservation, and, to be honest, when faced with it I do. It isn’t particularly pleasant, especially if the victims are less than fresh, and it offends one’s natural sense of compassion towards all living things. I say all, but to be honest the death of hundreds of beetles (the ones I’m supposed to be murdering) is bothering me far less. Something about the ‘otherness’ of invertebrates means they are much less disturbing to me dead than they are alive (when I don’t normally mind them, until they fly or run at me), and since my sample size depends, to an extent, on a good catch, I’m delighted if I lift one of the aforementioned ineffective lids and find the murky blue liquid within teeming with preserved beetles in suspended animation.