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Friday May 24 2019

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Village Features

Here’s a health to the bird in the bush

Posted on February 25 2019 at 1:47:23

good hedge

Mary Green praises ‘good’ hedges and the birds that use them.

The title this month comes from an old folk song. I can’t find any traditional songs for Candlemas, which happened last month, but there is a well-known piece of weather lore about it.

Candlemas Day this year was definitely “fair and bright” (and very cold) so in theory “winter will have another flight”.

However, it soon turned milder and wet afterwards, so maybe we will be spared a ”blackthorn winter” (late cold spell) this spring.

So far, some things are delayed, some early and some on time this year. I have seen cherry plum blossom at the time of writing, but no blackthorn yet.

Many people who are interested in the wildlife of the planet lament the decline and loss of species.

They all know that “destruction of habitat” is the most common cause. But some of them will happily go out the next day and destroy habitat.

One of the key habitats for insects and birds in this country is hedges and other patches of shrubby and thorny growth, especially now we have lost a lot of our woodlands.

Yet hedges are routinely flailed even in the growing season, and brambles and self-sown trees called “scrub” and cut down.

Hedges are human-made and have always been trimmed, and this can be done in the late autumn or winter without harm when they have finished fruiting.

However, branches need cutting carefully, not with a mechanical flail, and it only needs doing every three years or so if done properly.

The best possible way is to cut one third of the branches each year, so you always have growth. Hedges should never be cut to a flat top.

In recent years we are also learning that hedges and bushes are vital for our own health. Hedges or other groups of small trees and bushes are vital for cleaning the air of pollution, especially diesel particulates.

Tall trees very near the road are not so useful because they form dense canopies and trap polluted air under them. Flailed hedges are not much use, being too low and not leafy enough.

But a good medium-size hedge or group of shrubs or small trees will do the job. There has even been research into the best trees for this – birch, elder and yew are especially good.

Most of our familiar garden birds are woodland-edge birds. When we enclosed the land for sheep farming, we created hedges to divide the land into newly-created fields.

This was at a time when our native woodland was decreasing. Luckily, we continued the woodland habitat in long strips across the countryside, and birds and insects thrived, with woodland plants growing under and up the hedges.

Hedges were properly laid and trimmed so they grew to a good height and bore flowers and fruit. They became an asset as well as a barrier, their wood, flowers and fruit being used for household purposes.

Trees like elder and holly were especially valued, as I explained in my articles last year. And fruit trees were planted within the hedges, as well as growing there by chance from bird-dropped seeds.

You can walk along an ordinary hedge around here and find a wonderful range of trees. An old hedge will always have a diverse range of tree species.

Good planting of new trees will also have this variety – for example the new hedge a few years old half way up the field path from Withybed to Foxhill.

One of my favourites, easily accessible, is the road hedge between the canal bridge and Cooper’s Farm, just outside Alvechurch on Cooper’s Hill.

The hedge near the canal bridge is a relic of old woodland with large oak trees, cherry-plum and holly. Bluebells flower here in April and May.

The next part alongside the M42 embankment must be around 40 years old, so is relatively new, but very diverse. It has a great range of trees.

You will find oak and ash, field maple, alder, apple, hazel, cherry plum, wild cherry, elder, hawthorn, blackthorn, guelder rose, birch and holly, just in a few yards.

The flowering starts with hazel, alder and birch catkins, then cherry plum, blackthorn, cherry, apple, hawthorn and guelder rose blossoms. There are a few non-native pines as well.

Almost every tree I wrote about last year is there. There’s a habitat for you! And yet this is just an ordinary stretch of road you might drive down frequently.

Parts of the canal also have wonderful hedges like this, though they are often flailed and don’t flower as well as they should.

Many are as old as the canal, two hundred years, and some have trees older than that if they followed existing hedge lines, as near Alvechurch marina.

In my walks along canals, roads and paths, I often see wrens in the hedge. They have curious habits. They never fly high, going low along hedges and near the ground.

There is mythology attached to this. The wren was believed to have been implicated in the death of the first Christian martyr, St Stephen, commemorated on Boxing Day. Its punishment was never to fly towards the heavens.

Another legend has it that the wren hitched a ride on an eagle to fly the highest and become “king of the birds” so was cursed to never fly high again.

An old British tradition pitted the wren, the bird of darkness, against the robin, the bird of light, in the contest to be king of the birds. The robin had to win.

The custom was to hunt a wren on Boxing Day and sacrifice it. In more recent times the wren was not a real one, but the ritual went on, with a song called The Cutty Wren describing how it is caught, killed, cooked and eaten and the food given to the poor. A giant of a little wren indeed!

But the reality is just as odd. Wrens’ nests are unusual, and not only in Dudley! It is the cock bird that makes the nests, not the hen. He makes several, and then shows his prospective mate round them till she chooses the one she likes best and moves in.

After her eggs hatch the female looks after them on her own, which is also unusual in birds.

Meanwhile, the cock finds another hen to take up another choice of nest – and then another, and so on till they are all used. The last mate presumably gets the worst nest. Wrens therefore produce a lot of young.

Wrens build their nests in all kinds of places and are well-known for liking to nest in old clothes or former nests of other birds.

They are not just a hedgerow bird, living in wilder areas on cliffs and even in caves, giving them their Latin name Troglodytes. They sing loudly for a small bird, all the year round like the robin.

In winter they often huddle together in large numbers in a small space, like an old nest or box or hole in a tree.

Wren lives are very short: they rarely live for a year. They are so small and light that they often die of cold in bad winters – up to 80 per cent of them in a bad year.

But the way they breed means that they can replace themselves in a year, and even grow in numbers in a good year.

An odd little bird, but a successful one. You may not have seen one on your Great Garden Birdwatch as they don’t often come to bird tables, but you may well see one flitting along a hedge as you walk past.

I was talking to some neighbours recently about the lack of yellowhammers, a bird many of us grew up with, knowing its song of “a little bit of bread and no cheese”.

This little bunting likes open arable land, but it also likes tall hedges – and very few arable farmers let their hedges grow to a proper height these days.
It likes winter stubble, a practice not used so much by farmers these days. In the more rugged western parts of Britain it has a different habitat, gorse scrub near the sea, and its Welsh name means bird of the gorse.

We may need to go west now to see the yellowhammer, as we have removed its inland habitat.

I heard the first chaffinches and greenfinches of the year as I walked along a canalside hedge in February, as usual. We could lessen the decline of our “garden” birds if we all kept our hedges high, flowering and fruiting.

I wrote this poem in January after the lovely annual event that takes place at The Crown in Withybed. 

Mummers
We stand in soft drizzle, crowded up close
The dancers leave and the play starts. I know
These people, was dancing with them last night
But here they have dark faces and coloured wigs
Become someone else. Some of them have been here
For centuries: St George, the Turkish Knight, the Doctor
The dragon, with its yards of children’s legs,
And I remember men now dead who played them with me
In a different town fifty years ago. I was Molly
And Molly is here today, a local man in dress
And wig, deciding not to be a trophy of St George.
Some of them are different each year. We have
Billy Brexit appearing, resigning, coming back
A different but identical politician
We have the property developer, getting the loudest boos
And the Russian poisoner who does for St George. 
We laugh and whoop and boo and clap, and drink
And chat and see to the children and comment on the actors.
They act their parts, take care to fall dead on to the carpet,
Speak to the audience, pose and quarrel and fight.
It is true drama though. Not like the film and TV
Where we pretend the people are real, and every detail
Has to be right, the scenery, the period, the accent.
Here we know we are in a pub car park
And that that is Chris in that wig, and Molly is really a man
But it doesn’t matter. The play speaks of community
Of the struggle of light against the forces of the dark
Of an old year cut down by Father Time, a new one born
Out of all of us. We are all mummers. We play our parts
Put on the dress and wig, but underneath we are ourselves
Our knobbly, various, beautiful, middle-England selves.


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