I and my family came to the valley in late 1970, after one of the big factors that caused a very rapid decline in the wild bird population had already occurred. I refer to the severe winter of 1963-64 snow, freezing and icy winds lasted over two months and icy snow was still in some places until June. I think the worst hit wild bird was the Grey Partridge, thousands froze to death from starvation and until this day it is quite a rare sight to see a covey of Partridge. For many years, shooting and game syndicates refrained from shooting them.
The hedgerow birds suffered losses with the decline of the Shire Horse. Tractors took over most land work and as they got bigger and more powerful miles of hedgerows were ripped out to make fields bigger. Habitats of the Greenfinch, Bullfinch, Hedge Sparrow (or Dunnock), Linnet and Yellow Hammer to name a few were lost forever. Years ago every village and hamlet had their own roadman to keep country lane verges tidy. The majority of these men were nature lovers and very often if a patch of grass verge was left, you could guarantee that a Yellow Hammer or Meadow Pipit was nesting there. Then along came the tractor and mower to tidy the verges, so away went the nests of these birds that the old roadman would have preserved.
Dutch Elm Decease was another killer of the bird population. Most Elm trees had holes and loose bark, ideal nesting places for the Tree Creeper, their disappearance also aided the decline of the Tree Sparrow, Starling, Owls and to some extent Jackdaws.
Old barns and sheds that housed livestock during the winter have disappeared from the landscape and so Barn Owl numbers fell, the Stock Dove was another victim.
Game keepers were employed by landowners and shooting syndicates to look after the game birds, so they did not like birds of prey on their patch, they virtually had a licence to kill them. Nowadays with the new government laws making it an offence to kill birds of prey we have seen a significant increase in their population. Buzzards can now be seen every day in the Valley. The gamekeeper also controlled egg stealing birds, Jays, Carrion Crow and Magpie were not welcome on his patch. These three birds have increased over the last thirty odd years. So is this another reason why our songbird population has declined?
A new bird to the valley is the Red Kite, introduced to Savernake Forest in the late Nineties. It can now be seen on occasions hunting across our valley. A bird that made its own way into Wiltshire was the Collared Dove, breeding for the first time in Norfolk in 1952 it gradually spread across the country and arrived here in the late Sixties, now it is one of our most common birds.
A lot of fields in the valley are now ‘set-aside’, these are uncultivated and so may increase the nesting of Lapwing, Skylark, Corn Bunting and Meadow Pipit. Some landowners in conjunction with the RSPB are sowing wild plants to encourage these species. Other landowners are planting tree plantations and new hedgerows, this hopefully will help to increase the numbers of Yellow Hammer, Linnet, Bullfinch and Whitethroat. The banning of hedge cutting during the nesting season should also help, it is now an offence to destroy and disturb nesting birds in this way.
This valley of ours has a wide range of habitats. Woodlands support five of the British owls, along with birds of prey, Nightjar and Woodcock. Downland, fields and hedgerows as already mentioned. The river and meadow land have Duck, Coot, Moorhen, Little Grebe and Snipe and a few areas of reed bed for Reed Bunting, Reed Warbler, Sedge Warbler and Willow Warbler.
This changing face of bird life in the Valley is as I see it and is my own personal view – as a keen feeder of our feathered friends.
article by Derek Hartshorn