07 Mar The Hungry Gap

The yellowhammers are here again. One arrives most mornings around 6.30 but during the day numbers build up and fourteen have been here eating seed that we broadcast for them.

Snow fell last night, the thin covering barely toe deep. But it is not the raw days that drive the birds to our garden – it is the lack of food in the countryside. We call it The Hungry Gap, that period after about mid-February when the supply of seeds has run out in fields and hedgelines.

Modern farming is relentless in its eradication of weeds and the clean fields needed for crop production offer little sustenance for late winter seed-eating birds. Thirty years ago, while a farm conservation adviser, I took the naturalist Ted Ellis around some of my clients’ farms. He found many different weeds in the arable fields, becoming particularly enthusiastic when he identified both ivy-leaved and round-leaved fluellen (Kickxia elatine and K. spuria).

Those weedy fields have gone. Yet birds need to build condition ready for breeding and this drives them into gardens in their search for food. We try to leave a variety of weeds here and are rewarded by flocks of goldfinches and siskins coming to feast on teasels, groundsel and redshank (Polygonum persicaria). We supplementary feed a mix of seeds treated with aniseed oil.

There is something cheerful about the yellowhammer. From the office I can hear its chinking contact call and am often lured to the window to watch them. In early winter, males came, in twos and threes, to feed. Now the flock includes several females. They spend much of the day in our garden, eating and then resting up in the hedge. Young shoots of hawthorn are already opening, perfectly colour matched to the yellowhammer. The rusty red leaf tips and yellow-green first flush of growth reflect the birds’ distinctive plumage.

I hope that by feeding the yellowhammers we help them to maintain a breeding population and that countryside walks long continue to be accompanied by the trilling of their jaunty songs; their heads a splash of gold in the sunshine.